12 September 2022 – Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spaniard, has become the youngest world no 1 in ATP tennis history after winning the 142nd US Open, the final tennis grand slam of the 2022 season.
In only his second year on the professional tour, Alcaraz has won two ATP Masters 1000 titles (Miami and Madrid) and two ATP 500 titles in Rio and Barcelona, during the latter of which he defeated on clay his idol Rafael Nadal. The final saw Casper Ruud, the 23-year-old Norwegian, and Alcaraz competing for both a maiden grand slam and the no 1 ranking; even after three consecutive five-setters and 20 hours and 20 minutes on-court, the Spaniard defeated the Norwegian 6-4, 2-6, 7-6, 6-3. Nadal’s defeat to Frances Tiafoe in the round of 16 and the absence of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer has finally signalled a ‘changing of the guard’ at the top tiers of men's tennis.
However, no season and year in tennis in recent memory has been mired in more controversy than 2022: beginning with the disappearance of the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai – who accused a retired Vice Premier of China, Zhang Gaoli, of sexually assaulting her three years earlier – the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the principal organising body for women’s professional tennis, decided to suspend tournaments and operations in China and Hong Kong in 2022.
Current world No. 6 and 21-time grand slam champion Novak Djokovic had once again been barred from competing for failing to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. As the US Federal government still prohibit un-vaccinated non-US citizens individuals from entering the country, Djokovic missed his second Grand Slam of the season; earlier in year in January, the former world No.1 was forcibly deported from Melbourne after the Australian government revised his vaccine exemption and cancelled his visa. Djokovic, who has strongly defended, “the freedom to choose what you put in your body,” has stated that he would rather miss the opportunity to compete for further trophies and titles than be forced to compromise his principles and receive a vaccination.
The Russian Invasion of Ukraine at the end of February also caused more grief for the WTA and ATP, embroiling both organisations in further political drama. After initially putting out a joint statement condemning the invasion as, “an unacceptable act of aggression,” they also suspended the Russian Tennis Federation’s (RTF) and Belarus Tennis Federation’s (BTF) memberships of ITF and withdrew their participation from ITF international team events, the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup. Russian and Belarussian players are also no longer permitted to compete under the flag or name of their nation.
By April – with the ongoing invasion having transformed into a war – the All-England Club, the organisers of Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, decided to go one step further: all Russian and Belarusian players would be banned from participating in the tournament. 2021 US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, then world No 2, as well as Andrey Rublev, and two-times women’s grand slam champion Victoria Azarenka would all miss out from competing. The organisers expressed ‘sadness’ for the ban but stressed that it was necessary, “to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.” The decision to discriminate players based on nationality was largely criticised as “unfair” by the ATP, WTA, and numerous tennis players. Former world No 1 and three-time grand slam champion Andy Murray was, “not supportive” of the ban, and Nadal also described it as, “very unfair. Ultimately, the ATP and WTA were forced to intervene, stripping Wimbledon of ranking points, thus effectively reducing the tournament to an ‘exhibition event’.
At the same time, all players from the previous 2021 tournament would be unable to defend their positions and lose their ranking points regardless; any player to make a deep run into the tournament would stand to gain nothing in terms of ranking, a key measure to qualify or gain access to further tournaments throughout the summer. Djokovic, who went on to win his seventh – and fourth consecutive – Wimbledon title, ended up losing 2000 points and plummeting to world No 7. Nick Kyrgios, the fiery Australian player enjoying his best season in years, was denied 1200 points as the runner-up; his successful summer campaign on US hard courts – including a second Citi Open title in Washington DC – culminating in reaching the quarterfinals at the US open was, however, bitter-sweet – had points been awarded at Wimbledon, he would have reached a career high of world No 10. Ironically, the winner of the women’s singles, Elena Rybakina – who became the first player from Kazakhstan to win a major title – is half-Russian, resides in Moscow, and had previously played representing Russia from 2013-2018.
2022 has not been the only year and season where tennis has been so deeply embroiled with politics and current events. In 1970, South Africa were banned –because of their policy of Apartheid –from the Davis Cup after prominent popular protests and campaigning from tennis player Arthur Ashe, the first African American – and only man ever – to win a major singles title. When the South African team were briefly reinstated three years later in 1973, it won the 1974 edition of the Davis Cup by default, after India refused to travel to South Africa for the final. In 1975, Mexico and Colombia refused to play South Africa; when another vote to impose a boycott on South African players and teams failed in 1977, Britain, France, and the United States threatened to withdraw.
In 1975, the 18-year-old Martina Navratilova – who would go on to win 18 major singles titles and 31 major women’s doubles titles – decided to leave communist Czechoslovakia and defected to the United States. After her US Open semi-final loss to future rival Chris Evert, Navratilova approached the offices of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with her intention to defect; within one month, she was awarded a green card and became a US citizen in 1981. At the time, Navratilova cited sport and the desire to become the best player in the world as her reason for defecting – not politics. In reality, the Czech Tennis Federation were controlling all aspects of her career, including seizing all her prize money and deciding which tournaments could compete and where she could stay.
Whilst Djokovic, Rublev, and countless other players have decried the involvement of politics in sport, it has – and will probably always be – a constant tool of soft power in modern international relations. Just as Russia hoped to improve its image and credibility by hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018, the exclusion of countries from international sporting events may be viewed as an important – and necessary – symbol to condemn global atrocities. Today, Russian and Belarusian players may complain about ‘injustice’ – but such complaints mean little compared with the suffering of those living in Ukraine. Tennis – and other sport – goes on, and new young champions Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Świątek – the 21-year-old women’s champion – drive the game onwards to new fans of different generations. However, politics also goes on. The War in Ukraine goes on. Although such bans will have little effect on the state of current events, mixing sports and politics helps generate awareness across the world for the most shocking happenings across society.
Photo Source: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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