The Irony of the Elena Rybakina Wimbledon Victory
Born in Moscow, a young girl with a knack for tennis had no idea that she would be playing on the biggest stages of the sport. While playing tennis was only an after-school activity, she fell in love with the game and sought a professional career out of it. The year, 2018, would become a watershed for the Russian as she made a decision that allowed her to circumvent a ban of her compatriots.
Fast forward to 2022, to the historic ladies’ singles final at Wimbledon; and Elena Rybakina was about to ensure that the story of tennis could not be told without her.
Historic Wimbledon Final: Elena Rybakina vs Ons Jabeur
Adding to the significance of the moment was her opponent. Ons Jabeur set many new precedents, becoming the first African and Arab woman to make it to a grand slam final. Coming from the small country of Tunisia, the 27-year-old has broken barriers as to what Arab women can accomplish in the sport with her numerous achievements.
Arguably the best drop-shotter in the game today, she faced Elena Rybakina, in a clash of playstyles in the recent ladies’ singles Wimbledon final; a Federer-esque combination of slice and variety in Jabeur, versus the flatter, pace-packed baseline hitting of Rybakina, in what turned out to be a fascinating contest. But it wasn’t to be for Jabeur.
The hard-hitting Rybakina was about to add another feat to the history books, becoming the first Kazakh to win the Wimbledon title, defeating Jabeur in three sets; 3-6 6-2 6-2.
But unfortunately, that was not the history focused on. Under major scrutiny by reporters and the media throughout Wimbledon, the Russian-born Rybakina faced multiple questions on her controversial (or not so controversial) status as a Russian participating in a tournament, that banned all Russian and Belarusian players. Rybakina, however, deflected any questions pertaining to her being “Russian,” or having any affiliations with the country, despite still living there along with her family.
From Russia to Kazakhstan
Growing up in Russia, after leaving school, a young Rybakina had a decision to make; go to college or go pro? – Well, she chose tennis. Rybakina played her junior career representing Russia, and ranked number 3 in the juniors at one point. Early on in her pro career, in February 2018, Rybakina played a home tournament in St. Petersburg where she shocked many, making it to her first WTA quarterfinal. Despite losing that match to the fifth seeded Julia Goerges, reaching her first WTA quarterfinal was just one milestone for the young Russian en route to a surge in the rankings. Soon after, in March, she proudly represented the Motherland, winning her first professional title at an ITF event in Kazan, Russia.
But with the hefty financial demands of the sport, the young Russian needed help to fund her career. Deemed unworthy of major funding by her country’s federation, shortly after her success at home in 2018, Rybakina accepted help from a neighbouring country’s federation, essentially changing nationalities and playing under the Kazakhstan flag.
Upon winning her second singles title on the WTA tour, in an interview with WTA Insider, Courtney Nguyen on 22nd January, 2020, Rybakina spoke about her switch to playing for Kazakhstan. “I changed my citizenship to Kazakhstan because they believed in me and they offered. I was not so good when they offered. So, they believed in me and they’re helping me a lot.”
Now back to 2022 and despite it being 4 years into getting that help, many were not satisfied with Rybakina’s Kazakh status and argued that her Russian roots meant that she should not have been allowed to partake in Wimbledon.
At the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, major Western societies joined forces in punishing Russia for its actions. But sadly, regular Russian citizens, like athletes, got caught in the political crossfire with many Russian athletes being unable to compete solely on the basis of their place of birth. And Rybakina was no exception!
Sporting associations like the WTA and ATP, however, allowed tennis players to compete under a neutral status. But that was not enough for the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC); the governing body for The Championships, Wimbledon, and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) in England. On 20th April, the AELTC released a statement about the ban. “It would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships. It is therefore our intention, with deep regret, to decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players to The Championships 2022.”
The AELTC felt it unnecessary to explain how Russian athletes could benefit the “Russian regime”. Never mind the Belarusian ones, who hail from a totally different country. The players did not miss the absurdity of the decision.
Integrity or Ignorance?
Russian world number 8 at the time, Andrey Rublev, responded to the ban on him and his compatriots saying, “what is happening now is complete discrimination against us. The reasons they [Wimbledon] gave us had no sense, they were not logical. Banning Russian or Belarusian players… will not change anything.”
And he is totally right about that. Russian and Belarusian athletes have no say in the decisions made by their political leaders. Therefore, banning such players from doing their jobs is pure discrimination. And the AETLC knows it as well. Its Chairman, Ian Hewitt admitted as much when stating he recognises the difficulty on the individuals affected; and that “it is with sadness that they will suffer for the actions of the leaders of the Russian regime.”
The AELTC and Wimbledon, still made this decision, knowing full-well that those ‘suffering’ would be powerless citizens of the countries and not the leaders actually involved in the conflict in Ukraine.
The WTA also released a statement at the time to express its displeasure with the ban, stating that “a fundamental principal of the WTA is that individual athletes may participate in professional tennis events based on merit and without any form of discrimination. That principle is expressly set forth in our rules and has been agreed to by both AELTC and LTA. As the WTA has consistently stated, individual athletes should not be penalized or prevented from competing due to where they are from, or the decisions made by the governments of their countries.”
Fallout of the Wimbledon decision
In response to the AELTC’s breach in conduct, the WTA and ATP in a 20th May, 2022 press release, said it “made the difficult decision to not award WTA ranking points for this year’s Wimbledon Championships.” WTA Chairman, Steve Simon said the decision was, “as a result of the AELTC’s position that it will not honour its obligation to use the WTA Rankings for entry into Wimbledon…”
The WTA said they made this decision to protect players from the indiscriminate actions of the tournament’s governing body. However, that does mean that players such as Rybakina, Jabeur and Harmony Tan, who had brilliant runs in the tournament won’t fully reap the benefits of their hard work and success. Rybakina would have made her top 10 debut if such restrictions weren’t placed on Russian and Belarusian players and this all leads back to the AELTC’s attempt to ostracise Russia because of the “special military operation” that started back in February.
The Belarus Tennis Federation did not remain silent either. On 21st April, 2022, it called out the Wimbledon organisers for their “destructive actions” against players and its repercussions. “Such destructive actions in no way contribute to the resolution of conflicts,” they said; “but only incite hatred and intolerance on a national basis.” And the exclusion of these athletes from events like Wimbledon, has proven just that.
Since the conflict in Ukraine started, most of the West has seemingly become strongly ‘anti-Russia’ and Russian people have been vilified, as if each one was Vladimir Putin, and responsible for all the horrors happening in Ukraine.
Ironically, despite representing Kazakhstan, a Russian-born, Elena Rybakina, won the very tournament that Wimbledon and its organisers barred Russians and Belarusians from taking part in; and their unsporting form of protest against the Russian regime was rendered moot. Although fully committed to Kazakhstan, Rybakina’s Wimbledon victory unveils the blatant inefficacious nature of such a decision to ban players based on their nationalities.
Like and share this article if you enjoyed! 🙂