The Libema Open, a pro tennis tournament in the Netherlands, had a major announcement Wednesday: Daniil Medvedev, the reigning US Open champion, is coming to play at their grass court event in June.
That’s a big deal for their tournament, which doesn’t usually draw many A-listers. They even tweeted a big graphic of the Russian smashing a backhand, with a press release full of quotes about how he loves the “relaxed atmosphere that Libema Open is known for,” which is often code that appearance fee money was involved. Hey, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do these days.
Of course, the irony of the timing was too hilarious even for a tennis, a sport so disjointed that it can’t get its story straight on much these days whether it’s vaccines or invasion of sovereign nations.
Because shortly before the Libema Open promoted Medvedev’s entry — Go get those tickets now! — word started to leak via multiple news outlets that Wimbledon was set to ban Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s event due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of Government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible,” the official announcement said. “In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships.”
From a tennis standpoint, this is a pretty big deal: In addition to Medvedev, the world No. 2, No. 8 Andrey Rublev, No. 26 Karen Khachanov and No. 30 Aslan Karatsev will be knocked out on the men’s side. It will also take a couple prominent Belarusian players out of the women’s draw in last year’s semifinalist Aryna Sabalenka and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka along with six Russians currently in the top 50.
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And what will it accomplish? Oh sure, the stuffed shirt members of the All England Lawn Tennis Club will pat each other on the back while they clink champagne glasses and eat their strawberries and cream and hope that the world doesn’t see through this ridiculous pandering ploy.
But if Wimbledon has made this decision with the conviction that it punishes Russia in some way or will put pressure on prominent Russians to speak out against their government, then the only conclusion to draw is that the world’s most important tennis tournament thinks far too highly of itself. They’re not fooling anyone here, least of all Vladimir Putin.
Of course, the utter lack of impact this will have on the actual war is just one of many reasons why banning a handful of players in this circumstance makes absolutely no sense and could potentially lead sports down a dangerous path.
We are not talking about the Olympics or the World Cup where athletes are proxies for their national sports programs. Tennis has those types of team events every year. There’s certainly an argument to be made that banning the Russian team from the Davis Cup (which it won last year) or the Billie Jean King Cup (which it also won) is completely appropriate.
But when Medvedev steps on the court at an ATP Tour event or a Grand Slam as a professional athlete, he’s not wearing a Russian flag. Instead, the only loyalties on his body belong to Lacoste, racquet manufacturer Technifibre and BMW.
Medvedev, by the way, is a really interesting case in how ridiculous it can get to tie this kind of targeted discrimination to sports.
Nobody outside his inner circle knows what he really thinks about Putin, the Russian government or this war. But what we do know is that Medvedev’s primary residence is Monaco, a popular destination for tennis players because of its favorable income tax laws. In fact, Medvedev hasn’t really lived in Russia since he was a teenager, when he moved to France because he could get better instruction and training.
Around that time, as he was turning pro and trying to climb the world rankings, several reports indicate that he considered playing instead for Kazakhstan because the Russian tennis federation was not providing enough funding to get him started.
This is something several other players have done. Elena Rybakina, ranked No. 19 on the WTA Tour, was born in Moscow but switched her citizenship when she was 19 because the Kazakh federation offered more money. No. 33-ranked Alexander Bublik did the same.
They will be allowed to play Wimbledon because they made a financial decision as teenagers. Medvedev will not.
Let’s go further down the rabbit hole.
If the international community had understood in 2003 the way it does now that the American invasion of Iraq was based on manipulated or false intelligence, what would the reaction have been if Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick had been banned from Wimbledon?
What about athletes who happened to be born in countries who are helping commit atrocities in Syria and Yemen?
Those examples are not intended to suggest any moral equivalence between those conflicts but rather how slippery the slope can get when individual athletes are punished for the actions of a government that have nothing to do with sports.
Wimbledon is applying a two-dimensional decision to an issue with many layers, and they’re doing it unilaterally, which is a huge part of the problem.
In tennis, the ATP and WTA tours and have concluded, appropriately, that it would not make sense to ban Russians and Belarusians from competing. The ITF runs the major international competitions and the Olympics, so they’re in a different boat. The Grand Slams are all separate entities who work together on some stuff but can generally do their own thing, which means Wimbledon is free to be the outlier here.
But this is a terrible way to run a sport — particularly one where players have no union or recourse in these situations and no real defined expectation for when or how they might be able to play Wimbledon again in the future. It’s possible this conflict is going to drag on in some form for years. Is there an endgame here? Just ban Russians from playing at your country club forever until Putin surrenders?
Some Ukrainian players have made the case that Russians should be banned from professional tennis altogether as the war continues wreaking destruction and death on their homeland and loved ones. They are dealing with this horror every day, and their voices deserve to be heard.
But how do you really measure fairness in a situation like this? It becomes almost impossible.
Tennis is unique among major sports because it is so global both in terms of the people who play professionally and the number of countries where its tournaments are played. Perhaps, in these times, it’s impossible to untangle sport from world affairs.
And yet, this entire year has been bathed in unnecessary politics, starting in January when the Australian government — whether they were within their rights or not — made a grotesque show of deporting unvaccinated No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Now we have a circumstance where a tennis club, perhaps under pressure from the British government, is set to ban certain players because it will make them look tough on Russia.
But the only thing either of these situations have come from is that tennis needs to get its act together.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism