Elena Rybakina – navigating Wimbledon in wartimes

Last year, a player with the initials E.R won the US Open, creating history of all sorts.

This year, a player sharing those initials won the Wimbledon. She did so as history of the wrong sort was and is being created.

If the post-USO performance of Emma Raducanu along with the attention her burgeoning endorsement earnings and the non stop coverage from the media (particularly British media) has divided opinions, at least her victory brought largely positive reactions from one and all, a rarity in times in which even sport appears to be losing its ability to unite.

But things couldn’t have been more different as Elena Rybakina served her way to a Wimbledon title, her first grand slam title (just as the USO was Raducanu’s first…and only to date).

In the intervening months, there was the small event of Russia launching an invasion of Ukraine as February drew to a close. The invasion has ignited an intense debate between pro-Russian and pacifist voices on the one side and anti-Russian/pro-NATO and pro-intervention voices on the other. It is not a debate I will wade into here. Suffice it to say, though, that it has, amidst some carping from countries like Hungary, given Europe one common enemy to unite against after a long time. But an enemy neither they nor the US appear quite certain how to deal with. You can’t bomb the heck out of a nuclear power, especially not Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member so NATO cannot lift the veil of neutrality too much though they continue to provide assistance to Ukraine. And so…sanctions, partly to inflict pain on Russia and partly to appease Ukraine and its supporters.

But sanctions can potentially put an individual sport like tennis in a spot. Especially tennis which counts Russian and Belarussian players in its top ranks. Tennis has largely dodged the bullet thus far with both French Open and US Open choosing to not enforce sanctions against the participation of Russian and Belarussian players.

Wimbledon was another matter. If Boris Johnson himself was among one of the louder anti-Russian voices among world leaders, Wimbledon also took the toughest stand, banning Russian and Belarussian players from participating. This meant Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka among others couldn’t play at this year’s Wimbledon. This ban attracted just as much polarized debate as the war itself – one side saying the ban discriminated against individuals who had no role in a war launched by an autocratic leader and further would have no tangible effect on the war and the other saying such measures were necessary to build support to end the war and further, that the Queen or the Duchess of Cambridge couldn’t very well be giving a trophy to a Russian or Belarussian player in this moment.

The catch: Wimbledon ‘only’ thwarted players representing either of those two countries from participating.

So if, like Victoria Azarenka, you live in the USA but represent Belarus, you couldn’t play. If on the other hand, you live or lived in Russia but represent another country, say Kazakhstan…

And that’s the story of how Rybakina, who some would reckon is more Russian/Belarussian than Azarenka, got to play at Wimbledon. She was born in Russia and lived (by some accounts, still lives) in Moscow. At the age of eighteen, the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation agreed to fund her tennis development…IF she agreed to represent them. She signed on and thus became, last Saturday, the first Kazakh player ever to win a grand slam title. Except…

As strenuously as the pro-ban side argued that Rybakina represented Kazakh and her victory was A.O.K, the palpable unease and silence at Wimbledon spoke loudly otherwise. The crowd was all too aware of Rybakina’s antecedents and watched anxiously (offering the most perfunctory, the most feeble applause I have ever heard at the end of a singles final in Wimbledon) as Rybakina sealed her victory. Gawd, would she give a speech in Russian? Would she thank Putin? Such were probably the questions on their mind.

They were in luck. The extremely shy and introverted Rybakina is known for her celebrations, or lack thereof. Combine that with the sheer overwhelm she processed as she won a slam title (the stuff every tennis player who has never won one dreams of) as well as the unease of the situation and she chose…extreme restraint.

She barely made any gestures in celebration of her victory and simply walked up to her box and hugged her team. She accepted the trophy with warmth and dignity from the Duchess of Cambridge, the player for once having to put royalty at ease rather than the other way round. Thereafter, she kept her answers brief at the ceremony, injecting a touch of humour as she referred to how much Jabeur had made her run. There were no references to the war. But she had yet to pass all the tests.

The press conference would test her more as now the media had her all to themselves. And sure enough, one reporter asked her if she condemned Putin’s war. Fortunately for her, he asked that as the second part of a two part question.

So…how did Rybakina play this trick ball? She just hit right through. She said because her English was not good, she didn’t understand the second part of the question and answered the first part instead! Uh…in tennis press conferences, follow up questions are rare and there was none. Catastrophe averted.

And without saying a word, she addressed the complaints about her being robotically unemotional and unexpressive…by tearing up at a question about her parents. She asked, “You wanted to see emotion?”

As you may have gauged from some of my previous writing on the blog, I cherish nuance and dislike people who perpetually want to know what ‘side’ I am on. But in war, not picking a side can become a luxury and lead you to being misunderstood.

On the other hand (and not something that reporter or other ‘peace loving’ virtue signalling liberals apparently cared about), not picking a side can be pivotal to preserving life, of self and family in uh, non democratic environments. Had Rybakina appeased the frankly pathetic virtue signalling efforts and issued a full throated condemnation of the war, she may have potentially endangered family in Russia. Had she revealed herself to be a Putin supporter, her own safe or at least smooth passage out of UK could not have been guaranteed.

But, in the most intensely political of times, she carved out an apolitical path. And by doing so, she not only secured herself and family but also united tennis fans across the world and gave everyone, including the pro-ban group, permission to support and applaud her.

How many would still be able to look past her origins and simply respect and applaud a sporting achievement remains to be seen. But it certainly wouldn’t be for want of her efforts to navigate sport in times of war.

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