August 9, 2022

Almost as soon as Wimbledon announced it would ban Russian and Belarusian tennis players from this year’s tournament – ​​a measure adopted by none of the other Grand Slam tournaments and condemned by the men’s and women’s professional tours – clever observers of the All England Club have suggested a postman may be worried that a member of the British royal family will have to hand the trophy to Daniil Medvedev or Aryna Sabalenka as Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine rages on.

It turns out that the policy – as well intentioned as it was – wasn’t exactly rock solid. Because on Saturday there is a good chance that the Venus Rosewater Dish will indeed go to a Russian.

It just so happens that 23-year-old Elena Rybakina, who will face Ons Jabeur in the women’s final, made a fateful decision in 2018 that allowed her to be here, so close to winning the most famous tournament in the world.

Rybakina was born in Moscow. She grew up in Moscow. When she won her first professional title – a small tournament in Kazan, Russia – she represented her home country.

Elena Rybakina celebrates the match point against Simona Halep in the semi-finals.

SPORTS NEWSLETTER: Sign up now to receive daily updates in your inbox

WIMBLEDON: Rafael Nadal withdraws from semi-finals with abdominal tear

But at 19, Rybakina was at a crossroads. Like many tennis players trying to break into the top level of the sport, she needed financial assistance for training and travel and was not getting it from the Russian Tennis Federation. Another option was to go to college in the United States, which her father preferred.

Instead, here comes oil-rich Kazakhstan with an offer it couldn’t refuse: in exchange for changing nationality and playing under the Kazakh flag, it would receive the support it needed for facilities and sports. training to take the next step in his career.

“They believed in me and they offered,” Rybakina told the WTA website in early 2020. “I wasn’t that good when they offered. So they believed in me and they’re helping me a lot.

This is not unusual for Russian players. Yulia Putinseva, who has been in the top 50 for a long time, made the same decision in 2012. Well-known male players Alexander Bublik, Mikhail Kukushkin and Andrey Golubev also made the exchange of citizenship between Russia and Kazakhstan for dollars .

As Golubev explained in a 2012 interview, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship without a lot of strings attached. Kazakhstan can promote tennis stars, help develop the sport at home, and be represented on the international stage at the Olympics or team events like the Davis Cup. Players receive money and a new passport but don’t even have to live in Kazakhstan.

Rybakina, whose home remains in Moscow, has been by far the biggest achievement of the Kazakh tennis project. Although she has already reached the top 30, many first noticed her ability last year at Roland Garros when she beat Serena Williams in the fourth round. At 6ft tall with a huge serve and powerful groundstrokes, it was only a matter of time before she made a big breakthrough at a Grand Slam.

By the letter of the rule, Rybakina had every right to play in this Wimbledon. When she became a citizen of Kazakhstan four years ago, she was sufficiently qualified. But the fact that she could win this tournament highlights how absurd it was for the All England Club to draw a red line based on nationality because of a war over which the players have no control.

It is one thing to ban countries from international competition, where achievement and glory are expressly tied to nationalism. But professional tennis is ultimately about the individual, and Rybakina is an example of how country designations can be fungible and often irrelevant.

Rybakina may have a Kazakh passport, but is she more or less Russian than Medvedev, who moved to France at a young age to train and officially resides in Monaco? Or what about Vika Azarenka, who grew up in Belarus but lived most of her life in the United States and whose son was born here? What about Andrey Rublev, who wrote “No War Please” on a camera lens after a game?

All in all, it’s downright bizarre that they weren’t allowed to play while Rybakina – who chose Kazakhstan for financial, not ideological reasons – are one win away from the title. When asked after her quarter-final if she felt more Russian or Kazakh, at least she was honest: “That’s a tough question.”

Elena Rybakina greets Simona Halep at the net after her semi-final win.

Elena Rybakina greets Simona Halep at the net after her semi-final victory.

The whole situation underscores how identity, nationality and support for a particular government is not always as easy or clean as the Wimbledon ban would make it seem. It is also clear that it would make no difference to anything Putin has done with regard to Ukraine. On the contrary, it only gave him more propaganda to spread at home, helping him to argue that Russians are discriminated against by the rest of the world.

Maybe Wimbledon officials thought other tournaments would follow suit, but the rest of the tennis world showed solidarity behind the idea that Russian athletes shouldn’t be barred from playing because of their nationality. . The ATP and WTA have removed Wimbledon ranking points for this year, which is a huge penalty for players who did well at the tournament last year as they cannot defend those ranking points.

As a result, Novak Djokovic will drop to 7th in the standings next week, whether or not he wins the title this weekend. Ironically, Wimbledon’s decision to penalize the Russians will make Medvedev the No. 1 ranked player for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, whoever of the royal family is sent to the All England Club on Saturday, they could very well have their picture taken presenting this magnificent trophy to a player of Russian origin who would not have been allowed on the land this year if she didn’t need the money to start her career in 2018.

That alone proves that the Wimbledon ban wasn’t just wrong and misapplied – it’s now officially blown up in their faces.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia’s Wimbledon ban didn’t take into account Elena Rybakina reaching the final