Russians emerge as Wimbledon winners after charm offensive as ‘neutrals’ | Wimbledon 2023

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It has been a bounce-back tournament for Wimbledon: the crowds have returned and there’s a buzz around the grounds. The tennis has been engaging too, with the emergence of Carlos Alcaraz as a genuine contender and a series of upsets in the women’s draw. Among all the successes of the 2023 championships there is another, less welcome, winner, however, and that’s Russia.

Russian players, alongside those from Belarus, were banned from participating in last year’s tournament after the invasion of Ukraine. This year, after Wimbledon found itself alone and under political and financial pressure, that position was reversed. Players could return as long as they did not compete under a flag and had signed a “personal declaration of neutrality” as part of their terms of entry. By the time the first round started, 18 Russians and Belarusians were in competition.

These neutral athletes have gone on to perform well. Four of them reached the quarter-finals of the singles (plus the Moscow-born Elena Rybakina, the defending women’s champion, who represents Kazakhstan). Two, Daniil Medvedev in the men’s and Aryna Sabalenka in the women’s, progressed to the semi-finals. There remains the prospect that Medvedev, who only 12 months ago was ostracised from SW19, could yet be photographed shaking hands with the Princess of Wales on the way to picking up a trophy.

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On-court success extended beyond representation in the later stages. Medvedev has surpassed all his previous efforts on grass but so too did Andrey Rublev, who also served up perhaps the shot of the tournament when he found a winner while practically supine behind the baseline against Alexander Bublik. Roman Safiullin, Ekaterina Alexandrova and Daria Kasatkina, lesser-known Russians, all recorded personal best performances at the home of tennis. Finally, the cherry on top: Mirra Andreeva, the 16-year-old qualifier who became a 48-hour sensation after knocking out two seeds en route to the fourth round.

Success was extensive on court, then, but not limited to it. In engagements with fans and the media at Wimbledon this year, Russian stars have been charm personified. Medvedev, whose reputation is that of a hothead, has been winningly goofy, transparently trying to endear himself to the No 1 Court crowd who followed him from first round to quarter-final (“For different reasons it could be possible that the reception would not be as great as it was,” was how he put it). Rublev, meanwhile, was courteous in his remarks and conscientious in signing autographs for fans. Andreeva blushed when asked about an apparent admiration for Andy Murray.

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Aryna Sabalenka gesticulates
Aryna Sabalenka called on Wimbledon authorities to make sure Russian and Belarusian players were protected from hatred. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA

It is possible to debate whether this charm offensive was a happy accident and, if not, what motivated it; was it individuals trying to detoxify the reputation of their country, or just athletes happy to be back at a prestigious tournament? Whatever the reason, the conclusion anyone watching would draw is that there was a bunch of bouncing, smiling individuals who just happened to be from Russia or Belarus, pretty much every time they turned on the television.

The one openly political moment came at the end of the fourth round match between Elina Svitolina and Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka, the Belarusian, was beaten by the Ukrainian and then appeared to be booed by the crowd for failing to come to the net to shake Svitolina’s hand.

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It seems, however, that Azarenka was jeered for a failure of protocol, not her nationality. She subsequently argued she had only not come to the net because she knew Svitolina would not shake her hand anyway. She then claimed the crowd had booed because they were drunk. Sabalenka, in turn, called on Wimbledon authorities to make clear that Ukrainian players were boycotting handshakes and to do something to protect Russian and Belarusian players from “so much hate” when they left the court.

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Again, it is not clear that either Azarenka or Sabalenka has been playing politics. Being booed by thousands of people would create strongly-felt responses in anyone. But it is true that Azarenka has rejected calls of extra support for Ukrainian players on the women’s tour this year, while Sabalenka says she does not support the war but has also refused to condemn it and has shut down questioning on the topic during her Wimbledon run. If the players were keen to portray themselves as victims, not aggressors, and perhaps symbolic of a greater geopolitical misunderstanding, this might be how they would do it.

When announcing the ban last year, Wimbledon said the decision had been taken in order to “limit Russia’s global influence” through the strongest means possible. “In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression,” the All England Club said, “it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with the championships.”

In an information war, the truth is difficult to discern and motivation hard to gauge. A year after that statement, however, and with banned players successfully restored to competition, it feels distinctly like the benefits Wimbledon hoped to deny have ultimately been accrued.

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