Top Russian tennis stars consider defecting to avoid Wimbledon ban next year

·4 min read
Daria Kasatkina and Natalia Zabiiako - INSTAGRAM
Daria Kasatkina and Natalia Zabiiako - INSTAGRAM

Two of Russia’s best tennis players have refused to rule out defecting in order to avoid being thrown out of Wimbledon again next year, with one admitting she may never return home after coming out as gay.

Andrey Rublev and Daria Kasatkina raised the prospect of switching nationality following their ban from this year’s championships over their country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Rublev, the Russian men’s No 2 and world No 8, and Kasatkina, the national women’s No 1 and world No 12, made the comments in an interview aired just over a week after former compatriot Elena Rybankina’s Wimbledon triumph.

Russia was quick to claim credit for the victory by Rybankina – who switched allegiance to Kazakhstan in 2018 – completely undermining the All England Club’s bid to avoid the pariah state using the championships as propaganda during the war in Ukraine.

The effectiveness of its ban on Russian and Belarusians had already been called into question when Russian doubles specialist Natela Dzalamidze was allowed to represent Georgia on the eve of the event.

In a video interview with Russian blogger Vitya Kravchenko, Rublev said: “Speaking about access to Wimbledon, it would be acceptable to change the passport. Participation would be allowed then.

“If we are banned from all tournaments and I want to continue a sports career then, yes, that would be one of the options.”

Andrey Rublev - GETTY IMAGES
Andrey Rublev - GETTY IMAGES

Kasatkina added: “Our federation went out of existence for the International Tennis Federation. The world championship was taken away from us. Things are up in the air with the Olympics.

“Passport change? We’ll see.”

Kasatkina also used the interview to come out as gay, revealing she was in a relationship with another woman and that “living in the closet is impossible”, while also calling for an end to the war in Ukraine.

This year’s French Open semi-finalist later posted a picture on Instagram of her embracing Russian Olympic figure skating silver medalist Natalia Zabiiako with a heart emoji and called her “my cutie pie” in a Twitter post.

Zabiiako, who won her Olympic medal in 2018, posted the same picture and emoji on Instagram (see below).

Kasatkina came out as lawmakers in her country debate launching a new crackdown on people being openly gay.

It has been illegal to promote homosexuality to children in Russia since 2013, with the law used to stop gay pride marches and detain activists.

It could soon be toughened up to a blanket ban.

In her interview, Kasatkina, who lives and trains in Spain, said: “So many subjects are taboo in Russia. This notion of someone wanting to be gay or becoming [gay] is ridiculous. I think there is nothing easier in this world than being straight.

“If there is a choice, nobody would choose being gay, why make your life harder, especially in Russia? What's the point?”

Expressing fears she would “never” be able to hold her girlfriend’s hand in her homeland, she added: “Living in the closet is impossible. It is too hard, it is pointless. Living in peace with yourself is the only thing that matters, and f--- everyone else.”

Kasatkina said she was inspired to come out after Russian footballer Nadya Karpova revealed she was gay last month.

“I believe it is important that influential people from sports, or any other sphere really, speak about it,” Kasatkina added. “It is important for young people who have a hard time with society and need support.”

Asked what she wanted most in life, she replied, “For the war to end”, describing the conflict in Ukraine as a “complete nightmare”.

Those criticising the war in Russia can face imprisonment.

In the interview, Kasatkina admitted fearing she may not be able to return home, breaking down in tears at the prospect.

Kasatkina’s run to the French Open semis, where she lost to eventual champion Iga Swiatek, was her best grand slam performance.

Her previous best was reaching the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 2018, where she was also defeated by the ultimate winner, Angelique Kerber.

Rybankina’s 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 triumph against Ons Jabeur a week ago on Saturday was immediately hijacked by the Russian Tennis Federation, which claimed the 23-year-old as “our product”.

They also praised her training program in the country after the Duchess of Cambridge presented her with the Venus Rosewater Dish.

“It’s the Russian school, after all. She played here with us for a long time, and then in Kazakhstan,” RTF president Shamil Tarpishchev told sports website Championat.