Right to start for Russians: Increasing conflicts in tennis as a harbinger

Status: 03/22/2023 3:27 p.m

Ukrainians and Russians in the same competition – it’s everyday life in tennis. But the conflicts there give an idea of ​​what lies ahead for the sports world.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its President Thomas Bach want athletes from Russia and Belarus to be allowed to start again as soon as possible at international sporting events. The aim is for all the top stars to be there in Paris 2024. The main argument is that nobody should be excluded because of their passport.

While almost all international sports associations have excluded Russians and Belarusians since the war of aggression against Ukraine, tennis is going its own way. The pros there are seen as citizens of the world, most of whom live abroad and are by no means as dependent on government funding as many other athletes. That’s why Andrej Medvedev (Russia), Aryna Sabelenka (Belarus) and Co. are allowed to start under a neutral flag in almost all important tournaments.

ITF and Wimbledon pronounce starting ban

However, the organizers do not agree on this question. The world association ITF excludes Russian teams from the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup. The prestigious event went similarly last year Grand Slamtournament in Wimbledon, with consequences: The player organizations ATP and WTA withdrew Wimbledon from awarding world ranking points and imposed a fine. It is still unclear whether Wimbledon will allow Russians and Belarusians again this year.

Apart from that, the professional side by side and togetherness went relatively quietly, also because some top Russian players quickly distanced themselves from the war, including Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Medvedev.

Kostjuk refuses to shake hands with Gracheva

But in the meantime there is hardly any criticism of the war, Rublev is mentioned as an exception, and the irritations are piling up. When the Ukrainian player Marta Kostjuk won the tournament in Austin (USA) at the beginning of March, she refused to shake hands with her Russian opponent Varvara Gracheva.

She had previously announced that she would do this for players who do not take a clear stand against the war. “I want to dedicate this title to Ukraine and to all the people who are fighting and dying right now,” said Kostyuk after the game.

Tsurenko speaks of a panic attack

A few days later, Kostyuk’s compatriot Lesie Tsurenko did not appear in her third round game in Indian Wells, allowing Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus to progress without a fight. Tsurenko cited a panic attack as the reason, which she attributed to a conversation with Steve Simon, head of the WTA Women’s Professional Tennis Association.

According to Tsurenko, Simon told her not to get upset if players from Russia and Belarus supported the war, that was their personal opinion. In addition, Simon did not properly respond to the request for additional support for Ukrainian players. “This conversation left me shocked,” said Tsurenko.

Tsurenko received support from world number one Iga Swiatek. The Pole publicly called for more help for professionals from Ukraine.

WTA speaks like the IOC

The WTA responded to a request from “The Tennis Podcast” with the words: “The WTA has consistently shown full support for Ukraine and we strongly condemn the actions of the Russian government.” A fundamental principle of the WTA is also to ensure that individual athletes can participate in tennis tournaments based on their merits and without any form of discrimination. They should not be penalized for decisions made by the governments of their countries.

This is very similar to the reasoning of the IOC and there are also other parallels: In both cases, the non-discrimination of the Russians has serious consequences, especially for athletes from Ukraine.

Fencing: Ukraine boycotts competitions

Take fencing as an example: the Ukrainian fencing association decided to boycott competitions in which Russians and Belarusians are allowed to start. The international fencing federation FIE recently paved the way for this – also with the help of a voice from Germany. For fencers like 32-year-old Olga Kharlan, that could mean her career is over prematurely. Many fencers from other nations have also spoken out against the FIE decision.

The efforts of the officials are likely to trigger even clearer turbulence. Russians and Ukrainians play sports peacefully side by side, while Russia continues to wage a bloody war on Ukraine – it’s difficult in tennis, hard to imagine in other sports.