WIMBLEDON, England — After all the debate over whether to bar Russian and Belarusian players from Wimbledon, and under pressure from the British government, the women’s singles title may be won on Saturday by a player born in Russia after all.
Elena Rybakina is the 23rd-ranked player in the world, and before this week she had never advanced past the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam tournament. She is tall (6 feet) and powerful, an imposing presence on the tennis court. She has long appeared to lack the consistency required to win the six consecutive matches needed to contend for one of the most important titles, and in her late teens, her national tennis federation told her she was going to have to make it on her own.
That tennis federation was Russia’s. Rybakina was born in Russia and spent her first 18 years there. Her parents still live in Russia.
But four years ago, with Russia not willing to invest in her career, Rybakina did what several other Russian players before her had done. She cut a deal with Kazakhstan.
“It’s already a long journey for me,” Rybakina, 23, said during one of her increasingly tense news conferences this week, when she was asked if she viewed herself as Russian or Kazakhstani. “I got so much help and support.”
Rybakina’s journey to Saturday’s women’s final against Ons Jabeur of Tunisia has brought politics and questions of what it means to represent a country to a tournament that would prefer to avoid them. It has also highlighted what many in sports have long viewed as the fruitlessness of punishing athletes for the behavior of their governments.
“Exclusion is fraught with issues, not least as far as from a certain legal base, never mind the precedent it sets,” said Michael Payne, the former director of marketing and broadcasting for the International Olympic Committee, which has long favored participation over politics.
Kazakhstan’s citizens have typically preferred sports that involve hand-to-hand combat — wrestling, kickboxing, taekwondo, judo and karate. But 15 years ago, Bulat Utemuratov, a Kazakhstani billionaire, partnered with his government to finance an effort to make tennis a mass sport, in part to improve the remote former Soviet republic’s standing in the western world.
That has included offering talented young Russian players citizenship and funding if they agreed to represent Kazakhstan when they play. Qatar has done the same thing for athletes in track and field and soccer. Russia has done it, too, collecting gold medals at the Olympics won by the South Korean-born speedskater Viktor Ahn.
Russians’ playing for Kazakhstan has long been one of those accepted details of the sport, like the worn-out, brown grass around the baseline in the second week of Wimbledon. And no one thought much of it when the tournament’s organizer’s barred Russian players in April.
Britain, which has provided weapons and money to Ukraine and condemned the invasion, did not want to give Russia the opportunity to claim one of its most treasured trophies right now, which might give President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a propaganda opportunity, or to have a member of the royal family celebrating Russians during an awards ceremony.
“The U.K. government has set out directional guidance for sporting bodies and events in the U.K., with the specific aim of limiting Russia’s influence,” Ian Hewitt, the chairman of the All England Club, said in explaining the move. “We have taken that directional guidance into account, as we must as a high-profile event and leading British institution.”
He said the combination of the scale and severity of Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state, the condemnation by more than 140 nations through the United Nations and the “specific and directive guidance to address matters” made this a “very, very exceptional situation.”
Players from Ukraine applauded the move. Lesia Tsurenko said last week she has been far more comfortable playing a tournament without worrying about bumping into Russian players who she said have not reached out to express empathy for her or her country.
No one asked about the Russian-born players who represent Kazakhstan, until this week, when everyone began asking Rybakina about it.
Does she still feel Russian?
“It’s a tough question,” she said.
Has she communicated with any of the barred Russian players? She has not checked her phone much, she said.
Where does she live?
“I think I’m based on tour because I’m traveling every week,” she said. “I think most of the time, I spend on tour. I practice in Slovakia between the tournaments. I had camps in Dubai. So I don’t live anywhere.”
Perhaps, but everyone is from somewhere. Rybakina is from Russia — and also, for now, in some way from Kazakhstan.