By Nick Carter
This is not about tennis.
These are my thoughts in the aftermath of Wimbledon’s decision not to allow Russian and Belarusian players to take part in the tournament. You almost don’t need to read the rest of this piece to be honest, but I hope you do.
The reaction could not have been more polarised. Many tennis fans feel this is unfair because these individual players have nothing to do with the actions of their governments. Others feel that this move is absolutely necessary, at minimum to show support for Ukraine, at most to find other ways to punish Russia for the actions its government has taken and the regime in Belarus for supporting them.
I ran some polls across my social media. On Twitter, it was clear most of my fellow tennis fans disagreed with Wimbledon’s decision. This was reflected by similar polls run by David Law and Ben Rothenberg, among others. On my Facebook and Instagram, which I mostly use to keep in touch with family and friends, most of whom are not tennis fans, the gap was much narrower, but still overall disagreeing with the decision. However, I then saw a YouGov poll of over 3000 people, of whom 69% supported the move to some extent.
Tennis has a huge following, but we’re still a minority of people trying to convince the rest of the world that this is the greatest sport on the planet. For those of us who understand tennis, and how it works, this decision seems unfair. To be honest, it is unfair. I’ve thought about this a lot and I am still of the opinion that the citizens of any country should not be held accountable for the actions of their government. These are people trying to make a living, they aren’t interested in politics. Isn’t this the case for most of us? I do not agree with the idea that any small injustice is needed in the battle against a bigger one, but then I’ve never had to deal with such an ethical dilemma before.
Sadly, this is about politics now. Every country in the world is trying to work out how to respond to the crisis in Ukraine. Most Western countries have taken a clear stance, condemning and sanctioning Russia, even though it has resulted in great cost to themselves. However, this hasn’t stopped the war. The Ukrainians have fought hard, and the Russian military has changed tactics for now. But the shells are still falling, soldiers are still fighting, people are still dying. That is a bigger injustice than some people not being able to play in a tennis event.
Of course, if you frame it as a country preventing people from working there based on their nationality, it comes across very differently. There is no hiding from this, it is the definition of discrimination. That’s the battleground of justice we’re fighting in the UK, as well as in the US and across Europe. We see this as people crying out against misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and racism. For years we’ve seen social and economic inequality become entrenched as whole communities are passed over. I’m trying not to be too UK-centric with this, but it is my home and it is the centre of the tennis storm.
The tennis storm is merely a gust of wind compared to the hurricane in Ukraine. For them, justice begins when the fighting stops. When the Russian troops arrived on a mission to take control from a people who had chosen their own government and wanted to live in peace, it broke the laws of how humans should live. Everyone watching has been trying to work out how to make sense of this whole situation. None of it makes any sense to the people of Ukraine. The only thing that matters to them is survival, not just of their own individual lives; their very culture and identity are at stake.
The ATP and WTA are staying within their remit, focusing on sport and, rightly, standing up for the players they represent. They may not be able to do much, as the war drags on and governments try to find more ways to make Russia uncomfortable enough that its rulers finally agree to stop the violence. In this case, governments are trying to find a way to stop them finding small victories on an international platform, such as a sporting event, and set the terms of doing business in the West.
Wimbledon did not make this decision in a vacuum, they and the LTA (who also banned Russian and Belarusian players from its events) consulted with the UK government. Given how other national sporting bodies have responded towards Russian athletes, it is clear that the UK government very likely heavily influenced the final decision. At time of writing, there’s already talk of the Italian and French governments looking to direct their tennis authorities to follow suit. I would not be surprised if the U.S. does the same thing. This may take the wind out of the sails of any attempts by the tour to sanction Wimbledon and the LTA for going against the rules of open tennis.
Let’s be clear, this is not a good situation. There was no good option for Wimbledon. The choice was to allow for the distinct possibility of a Russian or Belarussian player winning the tournament, whose success could then be used for political gain by Putin, or to engage in open discrimination and break the Grand Slam rules. I would not want to be in their place making that call. I think the situation in tennis as a result of this decision is wrong, but the war is even worse. I hope most people agree with me there. The whole situation is just a mess.
I, like most of the people reading this, have probably sunk too much time into this sport. That’s not a problem, it makes me happy. I’m sorry if Wimbledon will be ruined for some of you now, but many people I’ve spoken to, even recently, are still excited to watch and even visit the event. I’m one of those people. I use it to escape reality, I admit it. I’m not sure that’s a good thing but that’s for me to work through. I don’t think I’m the only one though. So, of course we’re upset when one of reality’s biggest monsters comes crashing through the walls to spoil everything.
We get that luxury because we’re not the ones being shelled, shot at and brutalised. To repeat, this is the bigger injustice. Tennis can’t solve this. I am literally hoping and praying that the situation is resolved and the violence ends. Because it’s too big for me to think about.
This is not about tennis. This is about people, about life, about justice, about peace, about hope. As is everything really.