Once Again, Tennis Is Disrupted by Politics

If he had it to do over, 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 had been able to convince her parents and younger sister to come with her.

And Cliff Drysdale, the first president of the ATP, the men’s pro players’ association, is still in awe of his fellow pros for agreeing to boycott Wimbledon in 1973 when the Croatian player Nikola Pilic was suspended by his native Yugoslav Tennis Federation, which said he refused to play for Yugoslavia in the Davis Cup in New Zealand.

Tennis and politics have long had a craggy relationship. This year alone, the sport has been embroiled in three international incidents — Novak Djokovic’s deportation from Australia on the eve of the Australian Open because he did not have a Covid vaccination; the Women’s Tennis Association canceling all tournaments in China following accusations by Peng Shuai that she was sexually assaulted by a high-ranking government official; and Wimbledon banning Russian and Belarusian players because of the war in Ukraine. Both the WTA and the ATP subsequently stripped this year’s Wimbledon of all ranking points.

As this tournament begins, 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 because of the Wimbledon ban. Also banned are the Russians Karen Khachanov, ranked No. 22, and Aslan Karatsev, No. 43; and the Belarusian Ilya Ivashka, No. 40.

For the women, 13 players who would have qualified are not allowed to play, including the Russians Daria Kasatkina, ranked No. 13, Veronika Kudermetova, No. 22, and No. 83 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 2021 French Open runner-up; and the Belarusians Aryna Sabalenka, No. 6 and a semifinalist last year at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and No. 20 Victoria Azarenka, a former world No. 1.

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

“I have some sympathy for the Russian players, but Wimbledon did the right thing,” said Drysdale, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 1965 and 1966. “We have to do anything possible 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 in which tennis and world politics have collided. A native South African, Drysdale, 81, played against Norway in the Davis Cup in 1964 under police protection after demonstrators protesting apartheid tossed rocks and lay down on the court until event organizers were forced to move the match to a secret location without spectators.

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

And in the Pilic Affair, as it was called at the time, 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 in support of Pilic, including 13 of the top 16 seeds. Wimbledon went on, but with a significantly weakened field.

“Our sport is always going to be subjected to political forces, said Drysdale, an ESPN commentator since the network’s inception in 1979. “There’s always something coming around the corner and rearing its head.”

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

A year later, Navratilova created an international incident when she defected from Czechoslovakia right after losing to Chris Evert in the semifinals of the 1975 U.S. Open. Navratilova, then just 18, felt chafed by the then-Communist Czech government, which controlled her finances, travel visas, even her doubles 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 U.S. 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 a political situation it would create.”

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

Andy Roddick doesn’t like to take credit, but he is partly responsible for Shahar Peer of Israel being allowed to compete in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2009, Peer was denied a visa to play in a WTA tournament in Dubai. The U.A.E. and Israel had no diplomatic relations at the time, and tournament organizers said that Peer’s appearance would incite protests. The move prompted Tennis Channel to cancel its coverage of the tournament.

Roddick, in support of Peer, pulled out of the Dubai Tennis Championships despite being the defending champion. The next year Peer was granted a visa to compete in Dubai, though she was surrounded by security guards, and her matches, including a semifinal loss to Venus Williams, were relegated to an inconspicuous outside court.

Gilbert is sympathetic to the plight of the Ukrainian players and those from Russia and Belarus. He worries that if the players speak out against their governments’ policies they will jeopardize their families at 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 the way the Australian, French and U.S. Opens are. Wimbledon makes its own decisions. They don’t answer to anyone.”

Gilbert didn’t answer to anyone when he decided to compete in South Africa five times from 1983 to 1988. Even though he said that Arthur Ashe, the president of the ATP, asked him to stay away because of the political situation, Gilbert opted to take both the appearance fees and the prize money.

In 1987, Gilbert was vilified for playing in Johannesburg to amass 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 to do. At 22, what did I know?” said Gilbert, referring to when he first played in South Africa. “I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation. Brad Gilbert now wouldn’t go there. I understand now that politics and sports can’t help but be intertwined. Back then I was just dumb.”

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