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 when the country was in the grip of apartheid.

Martina Navratilova never regretted defying the communist government of Czechoslovakia by defecting to the United States in 1975, but she wished she could convince her parents and younger sister to go with her.


And Cliff Drysdale, the first president of the ATP, the association of professional male players, is still in awe of his fellow pros for agreeing to boycott Wimbledon in 1973 when Croatian player Nikola Pilic was suspended by his Yugoslav Football Association. native tennis player, who said he refused to play for Yugoslavia in the Davis Cup in New Zealand.

Tennis and politics have long had a rocky relationship. This year alone, the sport has been involved in three international incidents – the expulsion of Novak Djokovic from Australia on the eve of the Australian Open because he had not been vaccinated against Covid; the Women’s Tennis Association canceled all tournaments in China following Peng Shuai’s accusations that she was sexually assaulted by a senior government official; and Wimbledon banning Russian and Belarusian players due to the war in Ukraine. The WTA and ATP subsequently stripped that year’s Wimbledon of all ranking points.

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

In the ladies, 13 players who would have qualified are not allowed to play, including the Russians Daria Kasatkina, ranked n ° 13, Veronika Kudermetova, n ° 22, and the n ° 83 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, vice-champion of Roland-Garros 2021; and Belarusians Aryna Sabalenka, No. 6 and semi-finalist last year at Wimbledon and the US Open, and No. 20 Victoria Azarenka, former world No. 1.

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

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

Throughout his decades in the sport, Drysdale has witnessed several instances where tennis and world politics have collided. South African-born Drysdale, 81, played against Norway in the 1964 Davis Cup under police protection after demonstrators protesting apartheid threw rocks and lay on the pitch until event organizers were forced to move the match to a secret location with no spectators.

Drysdale was also a member of the squad in 1974 when South Africa, which had been temporarily reinstated after its 1970 ban, won the Davis Cup by default because India refused to travel to the country due objections to apartheid.

And in the Pilic case, as it was known at the time, the newly formed ATP, led by Drysdale, objected to the disciplinary action taken against Pilic, who denied him the opportunity to compete at Wimbledon. About 80 men withdrew from the tournament to support Pilic, including 13 of the 16 seeds. Wimbledon continued, but with a considerably weakened field.

“Our sport will always be subject to political forces,” said Drysdale, an ESPN commentator since the network’s inception in 1979. “

If it weren’t for politics, Jimmy Connors might have won the Grand Slam in 1974. That year, Connors won 94 of 98 matches and 15 of 20 tournaments, including Wimbledon and the Australian and US Opens. But he was banned from playing the French Open by the French Tennis Federation and the ATP when he signed a contract to play World TeamTennis, the fledgling league founded in part by Billie Jean King. The French federation and the ATP have argued that World TeamTennis is taking players away from tour events.

A year later, Navratilova created an international incident when she left Czechoslovakia just after losing to Chris Evert in the semi-finals of the 1975 US Open. Navratilova, then just 18, felt angered 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 political situation it 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. His request was granted, but only once, in 1985, Hu reached the third round at Wimbledon. She eventually settled in Taiwan.

Andy Roddick doesn’t like to take credit, but he’s partly to blame for Israel’s Shahar Peer being cleared to compete in the UAE.

In 2009, Peer was denied a visa to participate in a WTA tournament in Dubai. The UAE and Israel did not have diplomatic relations at the time, and tournament organizers said Peer’s appearance would incite protests. The move prompted Tennis Channel to cancel its coverage of the tournament.

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

Gilbert is sensitive to the fate of Ukrainian players and those from Russia and Belarus. He fears that if players speak out against their government’s policy, they will endanger their families back home. Gilbert, a former player, coach and current ESPN analyst, also understands Wimbledon’s position.

“You have to realize that Wimbledon is a private, member-owned club,” Gilbert said by phone last week. “The tournament is not run by a national federation like the Australian, French and US Open are. Wimbledon makes its own decisions. They don’t answer to anyone.”

Gilbert did not respond to anyone when he decided to compete five times in South Africa from 1983 to 1988. Although he said Arthur Ashe, the ATP president, asked him to stay at the discrepancy due to the political situation, Gilbert opted to take both the appearance fee and the prize money.

In 1987, Gilbert was reviled for playing in Johannesburg to rack up enough points to qualify for the year-end Masters. In reaching the final of the South Africa Open, he overtook fellow American Tim Mayotte, who refused to compete for moral reasons.

“It was probably the wrong thing to do. At 22, what did I know? Gilbert said, referring to when he first played in South Africa. I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation. Brad Gilbert wouldn’t go there anymore. I understand now that politics and sports can only be linked. At the time, I was just stupid.