Once again tennis is disrupted by politics

If he had to do it again, Brad Gilbert would never have played a professional tennis tournament in South Africa while the country was embroiled in apartheid.

Martina Navratilova has never regretted challenging Czechoslovakia’s communist government by defecting to the United States in 1975, but she wishes she could have persuaded her parents and younger sister to come with her.

And Cliff Drysdale, the first president of the ATP, the men’s professional association, is still in awe of his fellow professionals for agreeing to boycott Wimbledon in 1973, when Croatian player Nikola Pilic was reportedly suspended from his Yugoslav tennis federation He refused to play for Yugoslavia at the Davis Cup in New Zealand.

Tennis and politics have long had an ambivalent relationship. This year alone, the sport has been implicated in three international incidents – Novak Djokovic’s deportation from Australia on the eve of the Australian Open for not having a Covid vaccination; the Women’s Tennis Association, which canceled all tournaments in China after Peng Shuai accused her of being sexually assaulted by a senior government official; and Wimbledon, which banned Russian and Belarusian players because of the war in Ukraine. Both the WTA and the ATP subsequently deprived this year’s Wimbledon of all ranking points.

At the start of this tournament, five male players from the top 50 in the world, including No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and No. 8 Andrey Rublev, both Russians, will be absent due to the Wimbledon suspension. Also suspended are Russia’s Karen Khachanov, No. 22, and Aslan Karatsev, No. 43; and Belarusian Ilya Ivashka, No. 40.

In the women’s game, 13 players who would have qualified are not allowed to play, including Russia’s Daria Kasatkina in 13th place, Veronika Kudermetova in 22nd place and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in 83rd place, the 2021 French Open runner-up; and Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, No. 6 and last year’s semi-finalist at both Wimbledon and the US Open, and No. 20 Victoria Azarenka, a former world No. 1.

The United States Tennis Association has previously announced that players from Russia and Belarus will be allowed to compete at the United States Open in August, but not under their nations’ flags.

“I have some sympathy for the Russian players, but Wimbledon did the right thing,” said Drysdale, a 1965 and 1966 Wimbledon semi-finalist. “We must do everything we can to send a message to the Kremlin that they are committing crimes against the commit humanity.”

During his decades in the sport, Drysdale has witnessed several instances where tennis and world politics collided. A native of South Africa, Drysdale, 81, played under police protection at the Davis Cup against Norway in 1964 after anti-apartheid protesters threw rocks and lay on the pitch until promoters were forced to move the game to a secret venue without to relocate viewers.

Drysdale was also with the team in 1974 when South Africa, which had been temporarily reinstated after being banned in 1970, won the Davis Cup by default because India refused to travel to the country over apartheid objections.

And in what was then known as the Pilic affair, the newly formed ATP, led by Drysdale, objected to the disciplinary action taken against Pilic, which denied him the opportunity to compete at Wimbledon. About 80 men withdrew from the tournament to support Pilic, including 13 of the top 16 seeds. Wimbledon continued, albeit with a significantly weakened field.

“Our sport will always be subject to political forces,” said Drysdale, an ESPN commentator since the network’s inception in 1979. “There’s always something around the corner and raising its head.”

Without politics, Jimmy Connors might have won the 1974 Grand Slam. That year, Connors won 94 games out of 98 and 15 out of 20 tournaments, including Wimbledon and the Australian Open and the US Open. But he was banned from participating in the French Open by the French Tennis Federation and the ATP when he signed a contract to join World TeamTennis, the fledgling league founded in part by Billie Jean King. The French FA and ATP argued that World TeamTennis was withdrawing players from Tour events.

A year later, Navratilova caused an international incident when she defected from Czechoslovakia after losing to Chris Evert in the semifinals of the 1975 US Open. Navratilova, then just 18, felt irritated by the then-communist Czech government, which controlled her finances, travel visas and even her double partners.

“I defected because my country wouldn’t let me out,” Navratilova, who would go on to win 18 major singles championships, including nine Wimbledons and four US Opens, said in an interview this month. “I really had no idea what I was doing or when I would see my family again. I knew I was brave at the time, but I had no idea what kind of political situation that would create.”

Seven years after Navratilova’s defection, Chinese player Hu Na fled her hotel room during the 1982 Federation Cup in California and sought political asylum. Her application was granted, but only once, in 1985, did Hu reach the third round at Wimbledon. She eventually settled in Taiwan.

Andy Roddick doesn’t like taking credit, but he’s part of the reason Israel’s Shahar Peer is allowed to compete in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2009, Peer was denied a visa to compete in a WTA tournament in Dubai. The United Arab Emirates and Israel did not have diplomatic ties at the time, and tournament organizers said Peer’s performance would spark protests. The move prompted Tennis Channel to halt its coverage of the tournament.

Roddick withdrew from the Dubai Tennis Championships in support of Peer despite being the defending champion. The next year, Peer was granted a visa to compete in Dubai despite being surrounded by security and her matches, including a semi-final loss to Venus Williams, were relegated to an inconspicuous outdoor court.

Gilbert understands the plight of players from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. He fears players are putting their families at risk at home by speaking out against their governments’ policies. Gilbert, a former player, coach and current ESPN analyst, also understands Wimbledon’s position.

“You have to be aware that Wimbledon is a private club owned by members,” Gilbert said over the phone last week. “The tournament is not run by a national association like the Australian, French and US Open. Wimbledon makes its own decisions. You don’t answer anyone.”

Gilbert answered no one when he decided to compete in South Africa five times from 1983 to 1988. Despite saying that Arthur Ashe, the President of the ATP, asked him to stay away because of the political situation, Gilbert opted to take both the entry fees and the prize money.

In 1987, Gilbert was vilified for playing in Johannesburg to earn enough points to qualify for the year-end Masters. By reaching the final of the South African Open, he overtook fellow American Tim Mayotte, who refused to compete on moral grounds.

“It was probably the wrong thing. What did I know when I was 22?” said Gilbert, referring to when he first played in South Africa. “I didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation. Brad Gilbert wasn’t going there now. I now understand that politics and sport can’t help but be intertwined. I was just stupid back then.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.