Natela Dzalamidze arrived at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club earlier than usual on Sunday, taking time to chat with DW before training.
The 29-year-old doubles specialist has been the center of attention ahead of Wimbledon, not because she and playing partner Alexsandra Krunic are among the favorites, but because of the national flag she will be playing under.
Although she was born on the Russian island of Sakhalin, in northern Japan, Dzalamidze no longer represents her and her mother’s native country, but rather Georgia, where her father is from.
In doing so, the world number 45 circumvented the Wimbledon ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes, imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Dzalamidze, who has held a Georgian passport for six years, began the process of officially changing sporting allegiance soon after the invasion, submitting her documents to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in late May. The WTA confirmed its status change on June 6, a week before the entry deadline for Wimbledon.
“My decision was made because I am focused on my career and would like the chance to compete in the Olympics,” she told Britain’s ‘The Times’ newspaper.
At the World Swimming Championships currently taking place in Budapest, Russian and Belarusian female athletes are banned due to the invasion of Ukraine, just as they are at events in most other sports.
Russians and Belarusians excluded at Wimbledon only
In tennis however, the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and WTA men’s tours regard their players more as independent contractors than as representatives of the governments of their countries and have therefore decided that the athletes in question should be allowed to compete under a flag. neutral.
However, the four Grand Slam tournaments operate independently of the ATP and WTA, and the All England Club, which organizes Wimbledon, reportedly made its decision to exclude Russian and Belarus players in close consultation with the UK government.
To deter events from following suit, the ATP and WTA removed the world ranking points that players would normally have earned at the tournament. Since then, there has been a lot of noise behind the scenes and every decision, like Dzalamidze’s change of allegiance, is viewed with suspicion.
“I followed the rules”
“I didn’t cheat Wimbledon or the players. I followed the rules,” Dzalamidze told DW. “We received emails with registration deadlines… There was also a line saying that any player who wanted to change nationality had to do so before June 3.”
Dzalamidze said that after reading this line, she expected several other players to change their nationality as well. In the end, however, she was the only one.
She said she had originally hoped to make her debut for her new nation in a preparatory tournament, but those plans had to be canceled due to health reasons.
“I knew it would become a big deal if I started playing as a Georgian at Wimbledon,” she said.
Natela Dzalamidze “was ashamed to have a Russian passport”
‘General unfair prejudice’
Dzalamidze’s father’s family fled what is now the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia [officially part of Georgia] in 1992, when the war was raging. She was born a year later, so she has no personal experience of the war, but she is horrified by what is happening in Ukraine.
“It’s impossible for me to understand the pain and the situation there,” she said. “I can’t understand what it’s like when rockets are flying and you fear for your life.”
Those are strong words for a Russian-born athlete, even if she avoids using the word “war,” which can get you in trouble with the law in Russia.
“I understand the Ukrainians and their position. When it started, I was the victim of a lot of aggressive behavior and messages even from people who were close to me,” she said, before emphasizing that neither she nor any other Russian athlete had anything to do. with the decision to invade Ukraine.
“I don’t want to make excuses for what is happening in Ukraine, but for us athletes it is unfair to be subjected to this general prejudice,” she said.
“At first I was ashamed to have a Russian passport, but later I thought, ‘I’m a good person, why do I feel like this?’ For many years I worked hard to achieve my goals as an athlete, then because one person decided to start something terrible, I’m supposed to forget about my life and my career?
Hate messages from Georgia
The bulk of the hate messages she has received on social media since announcing her decision to switch allegiance have come from Georgia, she said.
“Most of them thought I was just trying to take advantage of the situation for Wimbledon and then come back to the Russian Federation.” But that, Dzalamidze said, is completely out of the question.
“My first name is Russian, but my last name is not. I am half Russian,” she said. “In Russia, everyone understands that I’m not completely Russian when they see my name, which comes from Georgia.”
This article has been translated from German.