As first appeared in Boxscore
By Aron Solomon
Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final was an instant classic.
In the first Grand Slam final of the year, Elena Rybakina (from Moscow and playing, for the past four years, for Kazakhstan) lost a superbly-played final to Aryna Sabalenka (from Minsk, yet living in Florida) in a battle of massively heavy hitters.
Yet there is an issue on the horizon that may hit women’s tennis even harder.
Week two of the Australian Open found two Chinese women left in the draw. Two Chinese women in a Grand Slam round of 16.
The WTA Tour and all of the tournaments fly the flag of China next to their names, even in light of China’s abysmal human rights record and the ongoing disappearance of Peng Shuai, who many fear has been under state detention since late 2021. When Peng Shuai came forward to accuse former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of a 2018 sexual assault, she vanished from public view and has not traveled internationally. Widespread international concern over her safety, whereabouts, and ability to communicate freely led the WTA to suspend all business operations and events in China in early 2022, with this year’s schedule very much up in the air at the moment.
At the same time as China’s flag waves in professional tennis, Russian and Belarusian players have no flag next to their names because of Russia’s unprovoked and unjust war against Ukraine. Australian Open champion, Sabalenka, was not allowed to play in Wimbledon 2022 because she is Belarusian. Finalist Rybakina was allowed to play and win the tournament, even though she spent most of her life in Moscow and, only four years ago, essentially pledged her allegiance to the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.
There really is no easy right or wrong here. Yet it seems to be a glaring omission to allow Chinese players to play in all tournaments and to fly their flag next to their name, given the alarming situation that has yet to be resolved with Peng Shuai and China’s creeping global aggression and human rights record.
The tennis reality is simple. By the end of the year, there’s a chance that five Chinese women could be in the top 50, which would be a remarkable achievement. Right now, the number two player in the world is Belarusian (Sabalenka), and there are five other Russian or Belarusian players (Kasatkina, Kudermetova, Azarenka, Alexandrova, and Samsonova) in the top 20 today. On top of this, there are another dozen or so players good enough to have a chance this year to make the top 30, including Potapova, Kalinskaya, and Sasnovich.
Michael Epstein, a New Jersey lawyer who closely follows the intersection of sports and law, observed that this is all a potential nightmare for the WTA in our politically- and legally-charged environment:
“Not only is the WTA treading on dangerous ground here, but it’s also uncertain ground. It’s going to be a balancing act for years to come, in which they need to consider business growth opportunities on one side and legal and political challenges of doing business in and with nations such as China and Russia on the other.”
This all begs the question of what tournaments will do if we have a run of Russian or Chinese champions. On Sunday, the official Wimbledon Twitter account congratulated Novak Djokovic for his victory in the Australian Open, yet there was no similar tweet for Aryna Sabalenka winning in what any tennis fan would agree was a far superior match on Saturday when she claimed her first Grand Slam title.
To compound this irony, Novak Djokovic’s father skipped not only the final but the semi-final as well after exercising remarkably poor judgment in posing with a group of pro-Russia fans supporting Putin and the war. This is yet another example of politics bleeding into sport – an inevitable reality in today’s often gruesome geopolitical climate.
It’s clear that the points of intersection between professional tennis, China, and Russia (and those states such as Belarus clearly aligned with them) are something that we won’t be able to escape in 2023 and probably beyond. No matter what the WTA does in regards to their China business operations, what Wimbledon does in relation to Russian and Belarusian players, what the Paris Olympics decides to do in regards to the 2024 Summer Olympics, and what countries end up getting extra tournaments based on these business decisions, this is all going to be a complex morass that will contribute to the success or failure of the sport’s business model.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, Crunchbase, Variety, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.