Nearly a year after Russia invaded Ukraine, a Russian-turned-Kazakh will play a Belarusian in the finals, which is sure to stir the debate over whether athletes from those countries should participate in international sports.
Australia — In the two women’s semifinal matches at the Australian Open on Thursday night, geopolitics won in straight sets.
For nearly a year, professional tennis — the most international of sports with its globe-trotting schedule and players from all over the world — has tried to balance its stated opposition to the Russian president Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with its hopes that its competitions rise above the quagmire of international politics.
It is not going well. Geopolitics has been everywhere at the Australian Open and will be on center stage in the women’s final.
It has been 11 months since the sport banned Russia and Belarus from participating in team events at tournaments, as well as any symbol that identified those countries. It’s been nine months since Wimbledon prohibited players representing Russia and Belarus from competing, and it’s unclear whether they will be able to play this year. Players from Ukraine have lobbied to have them barred from all events instead of simply not being allowed to play under their flags or for their countries.
That has not happened, and on Saturday Elena Rybakina, a native Russian who became a citizen of Kazakhstan five years ago in exchange for financial support, and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus will meet for the women’s singles title.
Both Rybakina and Sabalenka, who blast serves and pummel opponents into submission, played tight first sets, then ran away with their matches.
Rybakina beat Victoria Azarenka, another Belarusian, 7-6 (4), 6-3, while Sabalenka topped Magda Linette of Poland, 7-6 (1), 6-2. Conditions at this tournament — warm weather, balls the players say are tough to spin — have favored the big flat hitters since the first round, making the final showdown between Rybakina and Sabalenka almost inevitable.
The matchup is sure to rekindle the debate over Russian and Belarusian participation in sports, a discussion that has become increasingly heated in recent days, both at this tournament and throughout the world. Rybakina’s and Sabalenka’s victories occurred hours after videos surfaced of Novak Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, posing with fans who waved a Russian flag and wore the pro-war “Z” logo and voicing his support of Russia, against tournament rules. Serbia and Russia have close historical and cultural ties.