Russian and Belarusian tennis players will be made to compete as neutral athletes after a decision taken by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on the 1st March, as well as banning both countries from competing in team events like the Davis Cup.
The decision was taken in an effort to keep putting pressure on Vladimir Putin as the sporting world continues to sanction Russia. However, it has been met with very mixed reactions: the Ukrainian Tennis Federation wants Russians and Belarusians banned altogether while others believe it is just an empty gesture that won’t have any effect.
“It’s a purely symbolic gesture that fails to achieve anything”, Sergei, a 22 year old tennis fan originally from Russia, told 9to5.
“Governing bodies aren’t usually interested in nuance or pursuing the most equitable outcome, for them it’s simply a trade off between appeasing the fanbase and retaining their income or reputation.” He continued.
“On one hand, sport sanctions are the least of Russia’s concerns in light of the wider sanctions coming from all corners of the globe at the moment.” Jules Boykoff, the Department of Politics and Government Chair, pointed out to 9to5.
“On the other hand, Vladimir Putin has invested a great deal of social and actual capital in the sphere of sport, having hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 Men’s World Cup of soccer, so sport could be a potential leverage point.”
The decision has received support and it is true that there are advantages to symbolic gestures: increasing pressure on Putin, publicly showing support to Ukraine, getting people to learn more about the conflict and more.
However, there are several reasons that a considerable amount of people reacted negatively. “Compared to economic sanctions they (sporting sanctions) are almost entirely symbolic”, Adrian Rogstad, an Assistant Professor in European Politics in Global Perspective at the University of Groningen told a 9to5 reporter.
“It probably just feeds the Russian victimhood narrative at home – yet another way in which the world and the west is out to get us” said Rogstad.
More than that, it is punishing individuals who have all spoken out against the war, in whatever way they can. Today is a golden era for Russian tennis with four men and three women in the respective top 30 rankings and a win in the 2021 Davis Cup. Daniil Medvedev also became the first player outside the Big Four to become World Number One in eighteen years on the 28th February.
Andrey Rublev, world number 7, wrote “No War Please” on a TV camera after winning his semi-final match in Dubai. Medvedev has also said he wants to promote peace in the world.
Some have criticised Russian players for not staunchly denouncing the war, and news has even broken that Medvedev and other Russian players might not be allowed to compete at Wimbledon unless they distance themselves from Putin (although no official decision has been taken).
However, this could spell trouble for Russian tennis players: “It’s much harder for Russians to speak out even on a deeply psychological level because Russia has never been a functioning democracy and speaking out against the government would actually be perceived as a weakness or sheer stupidity by many” said Sergei.
Many Russian players also have family in Russia, who would be in considerable danger should any of the players strongly condemn the war. Even just calling it a war is a political stance, as the Kremlin has been pushing the narrative that the war is instead a “special military operation”.
Medvedev summed up his position in a conference at Indian Wells last week: “”It’s definitely not for me to decide. I follow the rules, I cannot do anything else.”
We are still awaiting confirmation whether Russian players will be banned from Wimbledon unless they publicly denounce Putin.