Serena Williams lost, but Wimbledon won with her return. Medvedev should be there, too | Opinion

·6 min read
Alberto Pezzali/AP

Wimbledon got underway this week with the thrilling (albeit brief) return of 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams after a yearlong hiatus.

Williams, who turns 41 in September and had not played a singles match in 364 days, looked hungry as ever and roared as loud as ever as she shook off the rust, battled for three hours and nearly beat Harmony Tan, a woman 16 years her minor, in a dramatic loss that ended 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7).

Welcome back, Serena! We missed you. No 40-year-old Mom can do what you do. Hope to see you at the U.S. Open.

Tennis is so much better when all the stars are playing, which is why the absence of the world’s top-ranked male player Daniil Medvedev is such a travesty.

He is not injured. He did not withdraw. He would love to be there. He should be there.

But he is not allowed to step on Wimbledon’s hallowed grass because he happens to have been born in Russia. The same goes for No. 6 ranked Aryna Sabalenka, who happens to have been born in Belarus. In all, 16 Russian and Belarusian players have been banned from their sport’s most prestigious tournament because of their country of origin.

On April 20, the All England Club announced that entries from those countries would be declined “with deep regret” because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“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,” read the Wimbledon statement.

There is no denying that Russia’s war on Ukraine is deserving of strong condemnation, and sanctions against that regime are warranted. But how does depriving tennis players of the chance to make a living, feed their families and chase lifelong dreams in any way deprive the Russian government any “benefits”? The only people being punished here are the athletes.

Medvedev stood to make $2.5 million if he won the Wimbledon title. Same goes for Sabalenka on the women’s side. The runners-up make $1.29 million, and the semifinalists make $636,000. That money would not have gone to the Russian government. It wasn’t going to Vladimir Putin. It would have gone to the tennis players who have trained nearly their entire lives for these moments.

Holding individual athletes responsible for their government’s actions is wrong. The NHL should not ban Russian players from making a living. Nor should the English Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, or Major League Soccer.

In general, I think it is best to keep politics out of sports, but sports can be a powerful platform and agent for change. I can understand banning the Russian national team from the World Cup or the Olympics or Davis Cup or Fed Cup because those teams are competing under the Russian flag, wearing the country’s colors, and those competitions are aimed at promoting world peace and unity.

But prohibiting individual athletes from making a living because the host country of a sporting event disapproves of that athlete’s government sets a dangerous precedent.

What if the French government or Australian government decided during the Donald Trump administration that it did not like his policies and therefore would not permit any American tennis players to participate in the French Open or Australian Open? That would be unfair and misguided.

The ATP and WTA tours are allowing Russians and Belarusians to play in tournaments all over the world, so long as their flags are not displayed beside their names on draws and scoreboards. The athletes are competing as individuals. Wimbledon should have followed suit rather than impose the ban.

“It’s a mistake,” tennis legend Martina Navratilova said in a recent NPR interview. “Imagine if the whole tennis world did that. They would have only one choice, which would be to leave their country. I went through that in 1975 and I don’t wish that on my worst enemy.

“I just think it’s a step in the wrong direction because you’re punishing individuals for being from a particular country where they had nothing to do with the country’s policy. I just don’t think this solves anything.”

Novak Djokovic agrees.

The former No. 1 said at his opening Wimbledon press conference: “As a child of war, several wars actually, during the 90s, I know what it feels like being in this position. On the other hand, I can’t say I fully agree to ban Russian tennis players, Belarusian tennis players, from competing indefinitely. I just don’t see how they have contributed to anything that is happening. They deserve to compete. None of them have supported any war.”

The ATP and WTA protested Wimbledon’s actions by announcing that ranking points will not be awarded for Wimbledon 2022. Reigning champion Djokovic will likely suffer most because rankings are based on the results of the previous 52 weeks, and he will not be able to defend the 2,000 points he won at Wimbledon last year.

But most players said the absence of points does not diminish their motivation.

“I follow golf very closely and have no idea how many ranking points the winner of The Masters gets,” said two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray. “Me and my friends love football and none of us know or care how many ranking points a team gets for winning the FIFA World Cup.

“But I could tell you exactly who won the World Cup and the Masters. I’d hazard a guess that most people watching on Centre Court at Wimbledon wouldn’t know or care about how many ranking points a player gets for winning a third-round match. But I guarantee they will remember who wins. Wimbledon will never be an exhibition and will never feel like an exhibition.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t think any tennis player serving for a Slam title, any footballer taking a penalty in a World Cup shootout, or any golfer teeing off on the 18th hole of a major was thinking about ranking points.”

Williams certainly didn’t look like she cared that her ranking had dropped to No. 411 as she ignited the Wimbledon center court audience with her gutsy play on Tuesday. And nobody cared what country she comes from. They were cheering for her athleticism and indomitable spirit, not for the United States.

Medvedev and Sabalenka deserve the same opportunity.

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