Wimbledon is forced to grapple with an uncomfortable truth ahead of Saturday’s women’s final
Despite representing Kazakhstan for the past several years, Elena Rybakina could deal a blow to Wimbledon’s anti-Russian grandstanding in Saturday’s women’s final at the All England Club.
The Moscow-born Rybakina, 23, represented Russia for the first few years of her career before opting to switch her nationality to Kazakhstan shortly after her 19th birthday, after being offered financial support from the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.
And while the Kazakh flag will fly ahead of her Center Court showdown against third seed Ons Jabeur on Saturday, her very presence at the showpiece match has prompted some nervousness in London, judging by the Western media reaction.
This year’s Wimbledon has been among the most dramatic seen in SW19 in some time; Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas went to war (almost literally) in a furious match on Center Court, while Rafael Nadal withdrew ahead of his semifinal match with Kyrgios, handing the Aussie the first walkover qualification to a Wimbledon final in the tournament’s history, to name but two of the headline-grabbing narratives which have dominated the event thus far.
But all of it – Kyrgios’ unlikely run to the final, or Novak Djokovic’s pursuit of his first Grand Slam of the year – has been conducted under a veil of controversy after Wimbledon chiefs refused entry to players from Russia or Belarus: a sporting sanction placed upon some of the world’s best as penance for Russia’s military action in Ukraine.
This was presumably designed to prohibit some of the world’s top players, like Russia’s Daniil Medvedev or Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka, from triumphing at the heart of British sport, and preventing any supposed public relations issues which would follow.
As The Times puts it: “The optics of the Duchess of Cambridge presenting the Venus Rosewater Dish to a player who was born in Moscow and has represented Russia at junior level will jar slightly.“
Jarring or not, after Rybakina blew away former champion Simona Halep in their semifinal, fate has decreed a scenario where Kate Middleton may well be presenting silverware this weekend to a woman born in Russia and an Australian (Kyrgios) due in court for an alleged assault.
Elena Rybakina beats Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3 to reach a first career Grand Slam final at #Wimbledon.
A player born in Moscow, who represented Russia till 2018, will contest a final in a year Wimbledon banned Russians and Belarussians.
The irony. pic.twitter.com/iaONMbGwYl
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) July 7, 2022
The Guardian, meanwhile, referred to Rybakina’s run to the final as a “headache.”
“It was impossible not to be enchanted by Rybakina’s happiness and joy – as well as the quality of her tennis,” they said.
“However behind the scenes, and their pristine smiles, Wimbledon’s suits are no doubt shuffling uneasily.”
Hardly the scenario the All England Club were envisioning a few weeks ago – as some have pointed out online.
So, Kate Middleton to present trophies to:
– a Russian;
– a man due in court for alleged assault.
— Oleg S. (@AnnaK_4ever) July 7, 2022
Wimbledon not only made a Russian player Daniil Medvedev be no.1 in the world by banning him from the tourney but also have a Russian Elena Rybakina playing in the final 😍 only she has *the right flag* to participate . pic.twitter.com/UV8WadhWuW
— Krista (@BwehRublev) July 7, 2022
If Rybakina, who was born in Russia, wins Wimbledon then all of the delegitimization of the tournament that Wimbledon caused by banning Russian players will have been for nothing.
I’d guess some organizers are starting to sweat.
— Stephen Boughton (@theslicestephen) July 7, 2022
Rybakina, though, is keen to underscore that her decision to represent Kazakhstan clearly wasn’t a marriage of convenience designed to circumvent the Wimbledon ban on Russian athletes, having made the switch in 2018.
“I’m playing already for Kazakhstan for a long time,” she said, referencing the geopolitical situation simmering under the surface of her very presence in London.
“I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan. They believed in me. There is no more question about how I feel.”
However, ahead of the first Grand Slam match of her career, Rybakina is keen avoid stoking any political flames and refused to be drawn into a discussion on nationality, or where she considers her home to be.
Instead, she says she is something of a wandering nomad.
“I think I’m based on tour because I’m travelling every week,” she said.
“Most of the time I spend on tour. I practice in Slovakia between the tournaments. I had camps in Dubai. So I don’t live anywhere, to be honest.”
— OptaAce (@OptaAce) July 7, 2022
Despite flying the Kazakh flag and stating her credentials as a citizen of the world, Rybakina could nonetheless become the first Russian-born winner of a Wimbledon singles title since Maria Sharapova stunned the world as a teenager back in 2004.
Amid all its efforts to rid Russians from this year’s tournament, Wimbledon still cannot avoid Russian influence at the All England Club.