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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Jon Wertheim

A Few Thoughts on Wimbledon’s Ban of Russian Players

Iga Swiatek continued her tear—the most dominant 60-day streak of WTA tennis since the Williams sisters. Carlos Alcaraz continues his whooshing ascent. Novak Djokovic is back—sort of. He won some matches but fell in the final of the Serbian Open. Meanwhile, another Russian won in Istanbul.

But the chatter this week was, not surprisingly, mostly about Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players for 2022. Lots of opinions—running the spectrum. Lots of passion. Lots of angles of entry. I wrote this when this decision came out. I think this is a swing-and-a-miss, one that sets horrible precedent, discriminates unfairly, and, above all, doesn’t achieve its aims—if anything it can (and has/will) be crudely propagandized by Putin. But to try and incorporate as many of your questions/thoughts as possible, here are some scattered bullet points:

• Let’s begin with some consensus: We are all outraged by Russia’s act of aggression. We are all supportive of Ukraine. We all find Putin to be some variation of a vile, narcissist, mass-murdering dictator executing an unjust war. Literally not one correspondence argued otherwise. No one is arguing in support of Russia. No one is not outraged. The issue here is how best to stand against Russia’s immoral, amoral war while doing so in an effective and principled way.

• Let’s acknowledge Wimbledon was in a terrible position here. If they admit Russian players, they are at odds with their national government. If they ban Russians, then they are odds with tennis’s government, such as it is. (As a close informed observer put it, “They would rather piss off Steve Simon and Daniil Medvedev than Boris Johnson.”)

• It's also worth considering the relationship of sporting events to government policy. The Australian Open debacle came about because the tournament and government policies were in conflict. The USTA took the opposite stance, especially with respect to Covid. “Hey, it’s out of our hands. We are just doing what the local/state/federal government is telling us to do.”

Wimbledon was clearly getting pressure from the British government to ban Russian athletes. I am told that the government told the AELTC (paraphrase): “We cannot guarantee Russian players will be granted entry into the country.” Rather than challenge this, rather than roll the proverbial dice** (See below) with an Australia-style standoff, the AELTC basically leaned in. That is, they adopted the government stance and owned it as a moral stance.

• Within the tennis cosmos—from the tours to Djokovic to Martina to Billie Jean King—there didn’t seem to be much backing for Wimbledon. But outside of tennis and outside of sports, there was more sympathy. This Sally Jenkins column articulates why.

• A plea to make an effort to avoid false equivalences and faulty analogies. Some variation of this came up a lot: “My sympathy is with the people of Ukraine, not with millionaire tennis players.” It’s an understandable, visceral reaction. But it misses the mark. Outrage and suffering are not finite. This isn’t an either/or. You can empathize with Ukraine’s plight AND with disagree with banning tennis players from one country. Likewise, shutting out Russian players is not the same as economic sanctions.

• Likewise, we can—and I’d argue should—be in favor of banning Russian teams and Eurovision acts and Bolshoi tours. Russia has surrendered its boarding pass for the global community. But those are representations of Russia, competing (and dancing) under national auspices. Tennis players don’t play for countries. They play as independent contractors. Want to ban Russia from Davis Cup? Absolutely. Want to ban athletes in an individual sport—unable to join a union because they are classified as independent contractors—who, by accident of birth, come from a country with a delusional butcher for a leader? Even if they don’t live there? Don’t vote there? And may be as outraged by the war as you and I? Not right.

• Loyalty oaths are just a horrible, retrograde idea. The idea that we make an athlete condemn or support something/someone as a condition for competition is not just a flawed concept—what does sufficient repudiation event look like?—but a scary one. This is McCarthy-era trash. Especially when there can be reprisals for speaking out against Putin and the Kemlin.

• I’m arguing against myself here…but I am sympathetic to the point that this is an extraordinary case, given how often and intensely Putin uses Russian sports success—the triumphs, the power, the aggression, the strength—as part of his mythologizing. This is a guy who spends $50 billion on a Winter Olympics AND orchestrates a systemic doping scandal in service of winning. Sports are so much a part of his soft power deployment and his image-building, that “sports punishments” carry particular valence here.

When this announcement came out, a tour employee suggested to me that player boycott was in order. That’s not only unrealistic but puts an onus on the players that ought not be there. Wimbledon makes bad policy and suddenly Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and their colleagues, need to bear the burden?

It’s interesting to see which players are and aren’t weighing in.

• Miles Benson was among many readers arguing, rightly, for a rankings ban. It only seems equitable that ranking points are frozen. Imagine if, for instance, Rublev misses the ATP Finals—and the six figure payday that comes with it—because he couldn’t compete on grass? It underscores this point: Wimbledon acts independently. Except that it doesn’t. This decision has all sorts of impacts. Tennis is a circuit. A circuit get broken when one component part breaks down.

• The U.S. Open offered a strangely empty and vague statement about whether it will follow suit. I suspect this was mostly to avoid piling on Wimbledon. But short of a government banning Russians from entering the country, it’s easy to imagine a legal challenge to a ban, perhaps starting with the fact that nationality is a protected class.

** My overarching question…Why didn’t Wimbledon simply say: “Unconditionally as we oppose Russia’s action, we are not prepared to take action against individual players. We also oppose loyalty oaths and public repudiation, which is are as silly as they are retrograde. However, we cannot guarantee that Russian players will be permitted entry into the country. In that case, we will not challenge national authorities. Caveat emptor, Daniil.”

In that case, the club doesn’t depart from the tours’ stances. It doesn’t create this horrible precedent. It doesn’t create this bad blood in the sport. It also doesn’t run afoul of its government. If GB wants to ban Russians, it’s not on Wimbledon. And the AELTC can say, “Hey, we warned you. We were prepared for this eventuality.” 


How good is Iga Swiatek?
—Montego J.

Ah, tennis talk. Really good. Like scary good. Since Australia (a loss to Danielle Collins), she won Doha, won Indian Wells, and won Miami. At the BJK Cup she won her first match 6-0, 6-0. Then her level dropped decidedly…. and she won her next match 6-1, 6-0. And she won Stuttgart.

For better or worse, we have put so much value in the Majors that they obscure too many other results. If Swiatek doesn’t win the French for the second time this spring, there will be a whiff of disappointment. But let’s pause to acknowledge that this is one of the great 60-day streaks of tennis we’ve ever seen.

Good grief Wimbledon. By this logic we should ban Peng Shuai from playing because the Chinese treatment of the Uighur.
—Yves, Montreal

And where is Peng Shuai? This is like the wooden racket of global sports controversies. Since her whereabouts and well-being became a cause of cause of concern, we’ve had Djokovic's deportation, Zverev, Kyrgios, Osaka in the desert, King Richard at the Oscars, AND this Wimbledon ban on Russian players.

You know how people re-send email? “Hey there! Reupping this so it’s at the top of your in-box.” We need a Peng Shuai re-up. That was a vivid illustration of how a totalitarian country works; how the Great Firewall of China works; how censorship works. And there still has not been a satisfactory resolution. But our focus has been diverted by other events and stories. Which is a pity.

Meanwhile I’m told that the WTA will have a small Asian swing in Japan and Seoul; that half of the China events will announce new homes soon, including Mexico and San Diego and Europe; that the WTA Championships have not been assigned yet. More news as I get it….

Speaking of Russian athletes, WTHIGOW Karen Khachanov? He makes it to the top 10 two years ago and now is out of top 25. I’m not aware of injuries. Is family more important? Or are others just passing him by? I like his game. Not the greatest mover, but I think he should be higher.

• I nodded in fierce agreement when this question came in. Then he makes a runs to the semis of the Serbia Open and takes a set off of Djokovic. Khachanov is no slouch and he’s been inside the top ten; but he ought to be better than he is right now. Big game. Clean shots. Not a great mover, but not bad for someone his size. A level head.

Aside: Khachanov married his wife in April of 2016. He was born in May of 1996. A prominent coach one told me that athletes who marry early are either uncommonly mature or uncommonly immature. I think he'd fall into the former category.

Re: comparing Steffi and Serena, Steffi didn't have to play her sister for any Slams, didn't come back from the depths a couple times like Serena did. Those X-factors tilt it toward Serena for me. But Steffi is right there. I agree the margin is very slim.

• Megan also raised this point: No other candidate has their big sister as a chief rival. We can argue which way that cuts….

Shoutout and congratulations to Tommy Robredo who retired at The Barcelona tournament. A wonderful career peaking at No. 5 in the world. Tommy's play for so many years at less prestigious tournaments, well past his prime, sans fame, glory and without fanfare or complaint, demonstrated an unparalleled love for tennis. He was a tennis pro in every sense of the word. The new breed of players, who seem to have an exaggerated sense of self importance: take heed.

Absolutely. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is next.

Do top players still get appearance fees at smaller tournaments (eg, 250s and 500s)? If so, doesn't this increase the likelihood of tanking?
—Terry Goldberg

• I’m a fan of “we’re all creatures of incentives.” Yes, when you’ve been essentially paid in advance, you might be less inclined to maximize effort. Then again, you might feel an obligation to validate the cut that has already been cut. Surely, we could construct a model and get some data here, norm for quality of opponent because the draw that pay appearance fees necessarily have lower cut-offs. Then conclude: “When players receive appearance fees, do their results drop?” My guess would be a little, but not much.

To the reader who said "Graf couldn't touch [Seles] at the time" of the stabbing: Graf led the head-to-head 6-4. It was 3-3 at majors. The four matches prior to the attack were split 2-2. The only argument in favor of Seles is a weak one: she won two of the three contests leading up to the stabbing, both at majors. Each victory was a three-setter (including 10-8 at Roland Garros), while Graf's win was a 6-2, 6-1 drubbing at Wimbledon. It's very easy to find this information on Wikipedia...

Also, by the time Seles became number one, Graf had nine majors (plus a gold medal), and had been No. 1 186 consecutive weeks (a record later tied by Serena.) She basically had the accomplishments of Andre Agassi's career in a span of four years. People seriously think she deserves an asterisk?
—Jesse K., Wisconsin 

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