London (AFP) – Born in Moscow but representing Kazakhstan, Elena Rybakina was crowned Wimbledon champion on Saturday at a tournament where her Russian compatriots were all banned.
Players from Russia and Belarus were prevented from competing at the All England Club after the invasion of Ukraine — including stars such as men’s world number one Daniil Medvedev and two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka.
However, there were still plenty of Russians playing on the famous grass courts over the past two weeks who had switched allegiance to neighbouring Kazakhstan.
Rybakina, who defeated Ons Jabeur in three sets in Saturday’s final, opted to play under the Kazakh flag in 2018 when she was struggling at 175 in the world.
Four years on, the 23-year-old is Kazakhstan’s first Grand Slam champion and $2.4 million better off.
The shy, six feet tall (1.84 metre) Rybakina has grown tired, however, of fending off questions over her nationality.
“I’m playing for Kazakhstan for a long time. I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan,” the world number 23 said after seeing off former champion Simona Halep in the semi-finals.
“They believed in me. There is no more question about how I feel. It’s already a long time my journey as a Kazakh player.”
Rybakina opted not to discuss how much time she spends in Moscow, saying she trains in Slovakia and Dubai when not on tour.
“So I don’t live anywhere, to be honest,” added Rybakina, whose parents live in the Russian capital.
Rybakina is the Kazakhstan number one ahead of Yulia Putintseva, ranked at 33 and a three-time quarter-finalist at the majors. Putintseva was also born in Moscow.
Kazakhstan’s top three men are also from Russia — Alexander Bublik, Dmitry Popko and Mikhail Kukushkin.
Bublik made the third round at Wimbledon this year, equalling his best run at the tournament.
Kukushkin, now 34, was one of the original border crossers, switching to Kazakhstan in 2008.
“At that time I was around 150 in the world and I was struggling,” he said.
“I was not in good shape in that moment, but I knew that I could play better, much better and I can get to the other level.
“But I didn’t have any opportunity for that. Unfortunately in Russia nobody was interested in me. Kazakhstan came to me and they provided everything — practice conditions, coaches.”
The road from Russia to Kazakhstan has been facilitated by the long-standing president of the Kazakhstan tennis federation, Bulat Utemuratov.
According to Forbes, the businessman has a personal fortune of $2.5 billion.
Utemuratov was in Rybakina’s box on Saturday to see his investment paying off and witness the player receiving the trophy from the Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William’s wife Kate.
On the international team level, Kazakhstan’s most successful player in the women’s Billie Jean King Cup is Galina Voskoboeva, born in Moscow.
Team captain is Yaroslava Shvedova, also a native of the Russian capital.
In the Davis Cup men’s competition Kazakhstan are ranked in the top 10, reaching the quarter-finals multiple times in recent years.
Georgia also benefited from a new recruit at Wimbledon when Natela Dzalamidze switched from Russia on the eve of the tournament to boost her dreams of taking part in the Olympics.
The 29-year-old has a Georgian father and Russian mother. Both still live in Moscow.
However, she insisted that as a holder of two passports, the switch of loyalty was already in her plans with the 2024 Olympics in Paris looming.
“I was thinking of doing it by the end of the year. It was not like I was applying for a new passport — I have had a Georgian passport for a long time,” Dzalamidze told AFP.
“But Russian players are banned and I thought ‘why do I have to lose an opportunity to compete here?’ I am 29 now. How many more years am I going to play tennis?”
Ranked at 45 in doubles by the WTA, Dzalamidze and her Serbian partner Aleksandra Krunic were defeated in the second round at Wimbledon.
© 2022 AFP