Once again, politics ruined tennis

If he had to redo it, Brad Gilbert would never have played a professional tennis tournament in South Africa while the country was in apartheid.

Martina Navratilova never regretted defying the communist government of Czechoslovakia by defecting to the United States in 1975, but she wishes she could convince her parents and younger sister to come with her.

As well as Cliff Drysdalethe first president of the ATP, the men’s association of professional players, is still in awe of his fellow pros for agreeing to boycott Wimbledon in 1973 when a Croatian player Nikola Pilic was suspended by his native Yugoslav tennis federation, who said he refused to play for Yugoslavia in the Davis Cup in New Zealand.

Tennis and politics have long had an uneasy relationship. This year alone, the sport has been implicated in three international incidents: the deportation of Novak Djokovic from Australia on the eve of the Australian Open because he did not have a Covid shot; The Women’s Tennis Association canceled all tournaments in China after Peng Shuai was accused of sexual assault by a senior government official; and Wimbledon banning Russian and Belarusian players due to the war in Ukraine. Both the WTA and ATP subsequently stripped that year’s Wimbledon of all ranking points.

At the start of this tournament, five male players ranked among the top 50 players in the world, including No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and no. 8 Andrei Rublev, both Russians, will be out due to a Wimbledon disqualification. Also disqualified Russian Karen Khachanov, who took second place. 22, and Aslan Karatsev, no. 43; and Belarusian Ilya Ivashka, no. 40.

Among women, 13 players who could have qualified are excluded from the game, including Russian Daria Kasatkina, who finished second. 13, Veronika Kudermetova, no. 22 and no. 83 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, vice-miss of the French Open 2021; and Belarusians Arina Sobolenko, no. 6th and semi-finalist last year at Wimbledon and the US Open. 20 Victoria Azarenka, former world number one. one.

The US Tennis Association has already announced that players from Russia and Belarus will be allowed to compete in the US Open in August, but not under the flags of their respective countries.

“I have some sympathy for the Russian players, but Wimbledon did the right thing,” said Drysdale, a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 1965 and 1966. “We must do everything possible to send a signal to the Kremlin that they are committing crimes against humanity.” …”

During his decades in the sport, Drysdale has witnessed several instances where tennis and world politics clash. South African native Drysdale, 81, played against Norway in the 1964 Davis Cup under police guard after anti-apartheid protesters threw rocks and lay on the court until event organizers were forced to move the match to a secret venue without spectators.

Drysdale was also a member of the team in 1974 when South Africa, which had been temporarily reinstated after it was banned in 1970, won the Davis Cup by default because India refused to travel to the country due to objections to apartheid.

And in the Pilić case, as he was known at the time, the newly formed ATP, led by Drysdale, objected to disciplinary action taken against Pilic that made it impossible for him to compete at Wimbledon. Approximately 80 people withdrew from the tournament in support of Pilić, including 13 of the top 16 seeds. Wimbledon continued, but with a significantly weakened field.

“Our sport will always be driven by political forces,” said Drysdale, an ESPN commentator since the network’s inception in 1979. “There’s always something that comes around the corner and raises its head.”

If not for politics, Jimmy Connors could have won the Grand Slam in 1974. That year, Connors won 94 of 98 matches and 15 of 20 tournaments, including Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the US Open. But the French Tennis Federation and the ATP banned him from playing in the French Open when he signed a contract to play. world tennis team young league founded in part by Billie Jean King. The French federation and the ATP claimed that World TeamTennis was suspending players from tours.

A year later, Navratilova caused an international incident when she fled Czechoslovakia immediately after losing to Chris Evert in the semi-finals of the 1975 US Open. Navratilova, then only 18 years old, was irritated by the then communist Czech government, which controlled her finances, tourist visas, and even her couple partners.

“I defected because my country wouldn’t let me out,” Navratilova, who has won 18 major singles championships, including nine Wimbledons and four US Opens, said in an interview this month. “I really had no idea what I was doing and when I would see my family again. I knew I was brave at the time, but I had no idea what kind of political situation it would create.”

Seven years after Navratilova’s defection, Hu Na, a Chinese woman, fled her hotel room during the 1982 Fed Cup in California and asked for political asylum. Her request was granted, but only once, in 1985, Hu reached the third round of Wimbledon. She eventually settled in Taiwan.

Andy Roddick does not like to take credit for himself, but he is partially responsible for Shahar Peer of Israel allowed to compete in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2009, Peer was denied a visa to compete in the WTA tournament in Dubai. At the time, the UAE and Israel did not have diplomatic relations, and tournament organizers said the appearance of the Feast would spark protests. The move prompted the Tennis Channel to cancel its coverage of the tournament.

Roddick, in support of Peer, withdrew from the Dubai Tennis Championship despite being the defending champion. The following year, Peer received a visa to compete in Dubai, although she was surrounded by security and her matches, including a semi-final loss to Venus Williams, were relegated to an inconspicuous outdoor venue.

Gilbert sympathizes with the plight of Ukrainian players, as well as players from Russia and Belarus. He fears that if players oppose their government’s policies, they will endanger their families at home. Gilbert, a former player, coach and current ESPN analyst, also understands Wimbledon’s position.

“You have to understand that Wimbledon is a private club owned by its members,” Gilbert said by phone last week. “The tournament is not hosted by a national federation like the Australian, French and US Opens. Wimbledon makes its own decisions. They don’t answer to anyone.”

Gilbert answered no one when he decided to compete five times in South Africa from 1983 to 1988. Despite saying that Arthur Ashe, the president of the ATP, had asked him to stay away due to the political situation, Gilbert decided to take both speaking fees and prize money.

In 1987, Gilbert was criticized for playing in Johannesburg to score enough points to qualify for the Masters at the end of the year. Having reached the final of the South African Open, he overtook his compatriot Tim Mayotte, who refused to participate in the competition on moral grounds.

“Perhaps it was the wrong thing to do. At 22, what did I know? Gilbert said, referring to when he first played in South Africa. “I did not understand the gravity of the situation. Brad Gilbert wouldn’t go there now. Now I understand that politics and sport cannot but intertwine. Then I was just dumb.”