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#AceNewsRoom With ‘Kindness & Wisdom’ July.09, 2022 @acebreakingnews
#AceBreakingNews – Elena Rybakina has made history as the first Kazakh player to reach a Wimbledon final, where she will face Ons Jabeur, the first Tunisian, Arab or African player to achieve the milestone.
But Rybakina’s rise casts a potentially awkward spotlight on the tennis tournament’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players.
That move was condemned by many in the sporting world — some argued sport and politics shouldn’t mix, while others said it unfairly punished young athletes who had nothing to do with Vladimir Putin’s actions.
It meant that the men’s world number one, Daniil Medvedev, runner-up in the Australian Open in January, was automatically out of the grasscourt grand slam, which is often regarded as the most hallowed event on the tennis calendar.
Belarusians Aryna Sabalenka, who made the semi-finals last year, and Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, were also banned.
In total, around 16 players from the men’s and women’s top 100 were blocked from competition.
One player found a loophole — former Russian Natela Dzalamidze switched her citizenship to Georgia just weeks before the tournament, in a bid to compete.
But now Rybakina, who was born and raised in Russia and reportedly still resides in Moscow, has advanced to the final, knocking out former world number one Simona Halep and Australian Ajla Tomljanović on her way.
Kazakhstan’s ‘Rent a Russian’ campaign
Rybakina represented Russia early in her career as a teenager, but made the switch to Kazakhstan in 2018, when she was 19 — long before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
She said pursuing her sporting career was difficult for her family financially, until the offer came from 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,” she told WTA Insider in 2020.
She echoed that sentiment after her win over Tomljanović this week, and after her semi-final victory she was asked if she felt more Kazakh or Russian “in your heart”.
“I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan. They believed in me. There is no more question about how I feel,” she said.
Rybakina said she felt for the banned Russian and Belarusian players and she wanted peace for Ukraine.
“I just want the war to end as soon as possible. Peace, yeah,” she said.
Rybakina’s case also demonstrates the fluidity of nationality and the shifting nature of borders.
Kazakhstan became an independent country in the early 1990s, seceding from the former Soviet Union.
In recent years, the oil-rich nation has been on a mission to recruit Russian players to compete under the gold and cyan Kazakh flag.
That initiative has been spearheaded by Kazakh billionaire Bulat Utemuratov, head of the country’s tennis federation, who is worth an estimated $3.6 billion, according to Forbes.
Rybakina is hardly the first to make the switch, in what news agency AFP described as a “rent-a-Russian” phenomenon.
Players including Alexander Bublik, Mikhael Kukushkin, Dmitry Popko and Andrey Golubev — who were all born in Russia — are among those who have swapped their passports to Kazakhstan.
Sport as soft-power diplomacy
Catherine Ordway, sport integrity research lead at the University of Canberra, pointed out 23-year-old Rybakina had made the switch legitimately, years before the war in Ukraine and long before Wimbledon’s decision.
She said players were representing themselves at Wimbledon, rather than their country, as they do in events like the Davis Cup.
While some argue the ban could be seen as a blow to Russia due to “national pride” in sports, she thought that was “a long bow to draw”.
“I really think it’s unfair and disproportionate, because what does it achieve?” she said
“In the end, it’s preventing a young person, who has a very short window of time, to be able to compete at the highest levels. And this is their profession, this is their income.”
The men’s and women’s singles champions at Wimbledon will pocket $3.5 million each.
“It’s interesting to think about sportswashing and the power of sport from a soft-power diplomacy perspective,” Dr Ordway said.
She said while there was an argument to be made about preventing oligarchs with dirty money, or human rights abusers from softening their reputation through sport, what had unfolded at Wimbledon was different.
“What appears to be happening here is almost the opposite, where they’re criticising athletes simply because of their heritage and the country that they happen to be born in, which they have no control over,” she said.
“And they certainly have no control over dictators.”
Previous tennis tournaments have allowed Russian athletes to compete, but have removed the country’s name and flag from their entry.
Some athletes have been vocal in their opposition to the war, but at the same time, “many of these athletes are concerned for the safety of their family members that are back in Russia … who may well be targeted if they are too public in their criticism,” Dr Ordway said.
“Sport and politics is always going to be heavily intertwined, and to expect otherwise is terribly naive.”
Dr Ordway said internationally there was criticism of some countries “buying” athletes, but there are often good reasons for people to move freely and become citizens of other nations.
She pointed out Australia was very willing to accept elite athletes, including in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics, as well as tennis players more recently: Tomljanović switched from Croatia to Australia, and former Russian Daria Gavrilova also now plays for Australia.
“Sport is supposed to be a place where we put our differences aside. And I think that this was a really lost opportunity by Wimbledon,” Dr Ordway said.
Dr Ordway said it was disappointing to see the emphasis on Rybakina’s place of birth, rather than her sporting prowess.
“She seems to be an exemplary role model for for young women around the world. So why wouldn’t we celebrate that?” she said.
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