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06 March 2024, 14:20

Belarusian Tennis Federation vs ITF timeline

In February of this year the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) supported the decision of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) of 6 May 2022 to suspend the membership of the Belarusian Tennis Federation in the ITF. Thus, the appeal filed by Belarus 20 months ago was rejected. At a press conference Chairman of the Belarusian Tennis Federation (BTF) Sergei Rutenko talked about the key events in the relations between the BTF and the ITF that preceded this verdict.

The international membership of the Belarusian federation was suspended exactly two years ago, but frictions between the ITF and the BTF started even earlier, in the second half of 2020. Then the ITF banned junior and professional tournaments in Belarus, citing security and safety reasons. The information about it was based on a report by independent security consultants, which, according to Sergei Rutenko, turned out to be an account taken from the internet.

"Hosting tournaments at home is very important for professional development of local tennis players as they move on to the senior circuit. At the 2021 ITF General Conference, I addressed this question to ITF President David Haggerty. I assured him that security for athletes was our top priority. After the conference, I sent him and all the board members letters inviting them to visit Belarus and see for themselves how safe it was here. After all, we held many competitions under the auspices of the ITF before. We delivered a top-notch Fed Cup final in 2017. But all our proposals were rejected.

According to the draw, in 2022 Belarus was supposed to host the Davis Cup Belarus v Mexico and the Billie Jean King Cup Belarus v Belgium, but the ITF refused us this right. Alternatively, they suggested that the Belarusian federation hold the matches on a neutral ground or give the right to host matches to the opposing teams. The Mexican federation got the right to host the men's tie which never took place. Upon arrival in Mexico, the referees informed the Belarusian delegation about the decision not to hold the match, after which our team was awarded a technical defeat. The women's national team's tie against Belgium was supposed to take place in Antalya, but was never played.

"Before the men's team left for Mexico, we contacted the ITF asking whether the match would take place. We were assured that it would. But the organizers were just waiting for the last Belarusian tennis player to arrive. Half an hour after his arrival at a hotel, a press conference was called where the ITF members announced the cancellation of the match. This behavior in respect of our athletes was rude and unacceptable."

After the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, the ITF considered that the Belarusian and Russian federations seriously damaged the status of tennis as a world sport. On 1 March 2022, the ITF Board of Directors, citing the recommendations of the International Olympic Committee, suspended the membership of the BTF, banned our country from participating in all official competitions under its auspices and from hosting international tournaments, and also excluded Belarus from all educational projects and programs to support athletes. The decision was ratified at an extraordinary ITF conference in Spain on 6 May. Delegates from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine were each given three minutes to speak.

“As a result, the Ukrainian representative spoke for 15 minutes, the Russian one for about 10 minutes, and I was interrupted after two and a half minutes. We prepared our points in advance and sought to lay out the facts. During my speech I said that such a decision by the ITF opens a Pandora’s box. During my speech I said that such a decision by the ITF opens a Pandora’s box. Unfortunately, hostilities are nothing new for our planet, and this decision makes a precedent. I also asked why the United States and NATO members did not face consequences for their role in hostilities in Yugoslavia, Syria, etc. After that, my microphone was turned off. It was on again after I was asked whether we condemn the actions of our government in connection with the Ukraine conflict. I refused to answer, pointing out that the conference was about sport and I had no intention to talk politics. Subsequently, these words were interpreted as proof that our federation supported the hostilities. But if we apply the same logic, we can say that the ITF promotes the war between Palestine and Israel or U.S. interventions in other countries, because none of us have heard their condemnation of those conflicts.”

On 26 May 2022, the Belarusian Tennis Federation filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) demanding full restoration of the rights of the BTF, as well as admission to ITF events using national symbols. In addition, as temporary measures, our federation suggested allowing the U14 & U16 teams to participate in the European Summer Cups in order to have a chance to qualify for the world junior team competitions. We also suggested allowing the U12 & U18 national teams to hold tournaments in their home country. The proposal was declined. According to Sergei Rutenko, the ITF did everything possible to postpone the hearing date. It responded to all BTF requests only at the end of October, not at the beginning of July, as originally agreed. As a result, the online hearing was held almost a year after the appeal was filed on 17 April 2023.

“On that day, we caught Mr. Haggerty lying. At the meeting of the Board of Directors, he referred to the decisions of FIFA and UEFA, saying that our football federation was allegedly suspended from international tournaments. But this is not true, because our football teams and clubs were not suspended, more than that they participate under the national flag and anthem. The only condition was playing on neutral grounds. He also claimed that most of members of the global tennis community demanded in writing that our country be stripped of its membership, but he was able to provide only a few letters with vague wording. Moreover, he claimed that he discussed our immediate suspension with President of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation Bulat Utemuratov, which also turned out to be a lie. We have close ties with this federation. Apparently, Haggerty did not know about it. More than that, Bulat even suggested hosting some tournaments that Belarus and Russia were supposed to host, and he was ready to cover all the costs. His proposal was rejected despite his significant services to tennis as a member of the ITF Board of Directors. Our juniors could have taken part in these competitions to hone their skills.”

On 9 February 2024, after repeated postponements of the decision, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the ITF decision and rejected the appeal of the Belarusian Tennis Federation. CAS ruled that Belarus should not bear expenses for this disciplinary procedure. The amount previously paid by the BTF (21,000 Swiss francs) must be returned to the BTF by CAS. However, our federation has to pay the ITF $10,000 to cover legal fees and other expenses incurred during the arbitration proceedings.

“Such a verdict goes contrary to legal practice. By recognizing that the ITF had made a disciplinary decision, CAS should have ensured that the ITF conducted a proper disciplinary procedure, i.e. that we were given the opportunity to defend ourselves and the right to be heard. Instead, CAS decided to apply the principle of arbitral self-restraint, which implies the ability of a given instance not to investigate all aspects of a case. In other words, CAS recognized the importance of protecting the ITF's independence and autonomy to govern its sport. They decided to vest all responsibility with the ITF and shy away from decision making. The damage costs accumulated over the past two years is already approaching €1 million. This sum is made up of increased travel expenses. We cannot host tournaments at home. Neighboring countries have banned us from participating. That means out athletes have to travel long distances. When we asked the ITF to consider reimbursement options, we heard nothing in response.”

According to Sergei Rutenko, many people are mistaken to think that Belarusian tennis has not suffered much from the restrictions, as Sabalenka and Azarenka continue to perform. The ITF also assures that their decision harms only the Belarusian Tennis Federation, and not athletes who continue participating in individual competitions. The BTF head emphasized that the ITF does not organize all tennis tournaments, but only team and junior tournaments, and also the Olympic tournament. All others are organized by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA). The ATP and WTA immediately declared the ITF's decision as absurd and politically biased.

“The ITF authorizes tournaments of juniors, whose rights have been infringed. In fact, this is discrimination against Belarusian juniors on the basis of nationality. The ITF does nothing to remove the split from the world of tennis. In some countries tennis federations forbid players from Belarus to take part in their tournaments, but the Board of Directors disregards this and allows these countries to host events. Once again I repeat that the main victims of such an illegal decision are our young athletes. In court, we provided statistical data, according to which the number of Belarusian athletes in the ranking was halved. As a result, the harm against our young players was not even mentioned in the CAS verdict.”

Now, the Belarusian Tennis Federation is considering the possibility of appealing to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland. The BTF will have 30 days to do so after the CAS officially announces its decision, which it has not done yet. According to the BTF, the consideration of its appeal in CAS was an imitation of arbitration proceedings. Sergei Rutenko is convinced that this verdict should receive maximum publicity in the media, so that as many people as possible learned about such injustice.

“When we said we would publicize the results of the case, the ITF started threatening us and trying to prohibit us to do so. They require us to pay fees every year and now they start telling us what to do. We will not keep silent. We will present all the materials. I am sure that in the future this will help us to avoid false statements and arguments when making decisions. We tell the truth, directly point out the violations, which they are trying to hide. It is only in an open fight for our rights that we can achieve respect. Otherwise this arrogant attitude towards us will continue. I can clearly see that the Olympic movement is degenerating. Neither the IOC, nor the ITF, or CAS pare doing anything to prevent this. Athletes are only sources of profit for them. I would like to show society the arrogant face of European officials, who, despite all the stories about the ideals of democracy and humanity, shamelessly act this way towards our children and our country, which has made a great contribution to the development of world tennis.”
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