Wimbledon, England. After all the controversy over whether Russian and Belarusian players should be banned from Wimbledon, and under pressure from the British government, the women’s singles title could be won on Saturday by a Russian-born player.
Elena Rybakina is ranked 23rd in the world and until this week she has never advanced past the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament. She is tall (6 feet) and powerful, impressive on the tennis court. For a long time, she felt like she lacked the consistency needed to win the six straight matches needed to challenge for one of the most important titles, and in her late teens she was told by her national tennis federation that she would have to do it on her own.
This tennis federation was Russian. Rybakina was born in Russia and spent her first 18 years there. Her parents still live in Russia.
But four years ago, when Russia was unwilling to invest in her career, Rybakina did what several other Russian players had done before her. She made a deal with Kazakhstan.
“It’s already a long way for me,” Rybakina, 23, said during one of her increasingly tense press conferences this week, when asked if she identified herself as Russian or Kazakh. “I have received so much help and support.”
Rybakina’s path to Saturday’s women’s final against Ons Gill Tunisia brought politics and questions about what it means to represent a country in a tournament that would rather avoid them. It also brought to the fore what many in sports had long considered fruitless punishment of athletes for the behavior of their governments.
“The exclusion is fraught with problems, not least in terms of the specific legal framework, not to mention the precedent it sets,” said Michael Payne, a former director of marketing and broadcasting for the International Olympic Committee who has long favored participation and not politics. .
Kazakhstanis tend to prefer hand-to-hand combat sports such as wrestling, kickboxing, taekwondo, judo and karate. But 15 years ago, Bulat Utemuratov, a Kazakh billionaire, partnered with his government to fund efforts to turn tennis into a mainstream sport, in part to improve the remote former Soviet republic’s standing in the Western world.
This included offering talented young Russian players citizenship and funding if they agreed to represent Kazakhstan when they play. Qatar has done the same for track and field athletes and soccer players. Russia has done the same, collecting gold medals at the Olympics, won by South Korean-born speed skater Viktor Ahn.
The Russians playing for Kazakhstan has long been one of those commonplace details of the sport, like the worn brown grass around the baseline in the second week of Wimbledon. And no one attached much importance to this when the tournament organizer suspended the Russian players in April.
The UK, which has provided arms and money to Ukraine and condemned the invasion, did not want to give Russia the chance to lay claim to one of its most prized trophies right now, which could give Russian President Vladimir Putin an opportunity for propaganda, or is there a member of the royal family honoring the Russians during award ceremonies.
“The UK government has put in place guidelines for sporting organizations and events in the UK with the specific aim of limiting Russian influence,” said Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club, explaining the move. “We have taken this direction into account as we must do so as an important event and as a leading UK institution.”
He said that the combination of scale and seriousness Russian invasion sovereign state, condemnation by more than 140 countries through the United Nations, and “concrete and directive guidance to resolve issues” made it a “very, very exceptional situation”.
Players from Ukraine applauded this move. Lesya Tsurenko said last week she is much more comfortable to play in a tournament without worrying about running into Russian players, who she said didn’t reach out to express sympathy for her or her country.
No one asked about players of Russian origin who represent Kazakhstan until this week, when everyone started asking Rybakina about it.
Does she still feel Russian?
“It’s a difficult question,” she said.
Has she interacted with any of the banned Russian players? She didn’t check her phone much, she said.
Where she lives?
“I think I’m based on touring because I travel every week,” she said. “I think I spend most of my time on tour. I train in Slovakia between tournaments. I had camps in Dubai. So I don’t live anywhere.”
Maybe, but everything comes from somewhere. Rybakin from Russia, but still to some extent from Kazakhstan.