Is the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s Wimbledon 2022 ban on Russians a double fault?

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There is, of course, the argument that it would be unfair to Ukrainian players to have to compete against Russian players given what their country is suffering. And yet, that can happen at other tournaments. And where to draw those lines is a road to endless “whataboutery”. (Israel has been on the receiving end of a lot of that over the years.)

A somewhat better argument in favor of the ban – and the one implied in the club’s statement – is that it denies Putin a vicarious victory. In theory, sport and politics should be separate spheres. In reality because humans identify so strongly with sporting competition and achievement, they have always been intertwined.

French President Emmanuel Macron sat in the VIP box with Putin to celebrate France’s 2018 soccer World Cup victory. Boris Johnson’s career got a major boost as London Mayor when he presided over the 2012 Olympics. And he was quick to hitch his wagon to the Emma Raducanu fairy tale when the British player won the US Open last year.

But, let’s face it, no political leader has elided sporting prowess and national greatness more overtly than Putin, a judo black belt whose own shirtless images are carefully crafted to push his narrative of past and future Russian greatness. Putin has invested heavily in sports, hosting numerous major events, such as the lavishly financed 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, whose official media guides noted that “the sleeping giant of Russia is awakened, ready for change and growth”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a sports fan. Credit:Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Wimbledon wants none of that. Even the remote prospect of Putin beaming with pride from the Kremlin as the Duchess of Cambridge congratulates Medvedev on his victory di lui, on Wimbledon’s centenary no less, is a public-relations nightmare for the venerable club.

And yet, the Kremlin has already used the decision to reinforce its narrative that NATO and the West discriminate unfairly against Russians. Banning Russian players, therefore, has the perverse impact of helping Putin push his message of Russia alone against a hostile world, but only because the Kremlin twists everything to match its message di lui.

The ban also (quite deliberately) reduces the chances of war-related headlines around the tournament. But who does that serve? It’s also a ban on the powerful symbolism of a Russian-Ukrainian doubles act, or the prospect of Russian or Belarusian players using the global platform they’d have at the event to send a message to Putin or fellow Russians and Belarusians at home to oppose the war.

While it’s hardly the job of the tournament to facilitate such things, it’s not quite right to say the ban is wholly about denying Putin the satisfaction since it also reduces his risk that he will be called out by Russian players on a global stage.

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A Question of Fairness

Navratilova has a point in drawing a distinction between team and individual sports and questioning the fairness of the measure. National teams play under a flag; and sports with state-led development programs that select and groom players from a very young age, as is the case with gymnastics or figure skating, are also flag-bearers even where they feature individual competitors.

But apart from Davis and Billie Jean King (formerly known as the Fed) Cup national team competitions, tennis is a fiercely individual sport where nationality plays a very limited role. In apartheid-era South Africa, many sports faced bans and boycotts, but its tennis players were largely free to compete around the world. Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in 1981 and 1982 and Kevin Curren made it to the Wimbledon final in 1985. Both men took US citizenship, which enabled them to avoid the apartheid bans.

Citizenship doesn’t necessarily overlap neatly with national identity in tennis, partly because great players need to be around clusters of other great players when they are developing. Russians are ubiquitous at Spanish and US tennis academies. The retired star Maria Sharapova moved to the US when she was seven, but represented Russia in the 2012 Olympics. Similarly, many Russians cheer German-born Alexander Zverev as one of their own because his parents of him were both Soviet-era Russian tennis players.

Or take Andrey Rublev, another top 10 ranked men’s player who was born in Russia but who also honed his game in Spain. His mother coached at the famous Spartak Tennis Club that has produced so many strong Russian players and was awarded the Medal of the Order for “Merit to the Fatherland” in 2009. Rublev was the first Russian player to speak out against the war, writing ” No war please ”in marker on the camera lens after his semi-final win at Dubai. He made a statement too in pairing with Ukrainian Denys Molchanov to win the doubles title.

To mention these individual cases is of course to highlight Wimbledon’s dilemma. Either the club makes individual decisions based on the circumstances of the player (much the way banks conduct know-your-customer due diligence for compliance purposes), or it enacts a blanket ban on any player with a Russian passport. That’s the route favored by retired Ukrainian player Alexandr Dolgopolov, who says all Russians should be held accountable in some way.

An arguably bigger hit to Putin, a massive hockey fan, would be the expulsion of the 55 Russian players active in the National Hockey League, as legendary Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek has advocated. But while the NHL has suspended its ties with Russian businesses and its Russian-language social media accounts, it hasn’t gone that far. As with the All England Club, these decisions tend to be foremost about commercial and narrow reputational risk management.

Two years ago, Wimbledon had reason to feel smug during a time of maximum uncertainty. It had taken out pandemic insurance and so was indemnified against an event that took pretty much every other organization by surprise. The decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s championship is another insurance policy of sorts. But while it will ensure the drama stays on-court, it’s an unsatisfying answer to the question of how far to punish ordinary (and even extraordinary) Russians for Putin’s crimes.

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