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Why Wimbledon champ Elena Rybakina ditched Russia for Kazakhsthan

Elena Rybakina created tennis history on Saturday by getting the better of Ons Jabeur.

The 23-year-old came from a set down to beat the Tunisian and in the process become Kazakhstan’s first ever Grand Slam champion.

Elena also knocked out former world number one Simona Halep and Australian Ajla Tomljanović on her way to the final.

However, this triumph has raised important questions regarding the link between sports and politics.

The background

World No  23, Elena Rybakina holds a Kazakhstani passport.

The Moscow-born Rybakina switched flags from Russia to Kazakhstan in 2018.

Dave Miley, tennis director at the Kazakhstan Federation said: “Lots of players are born in one country and represent another.”

“Cameron Norrie chose to represent Great Britain, not New Zealand.”

“Elena wanted to change her country and the International Tennis Federation approved it.

“Elena’s been representing Kazakhstan for four years and has a Kazakhstani passport.”

However, the irony of the situation is hard to ignore.

Due to the Ukraine war, Wimbledon banned all players from Russia and Belarus.

However, the Wimbledon champion is a player who was born in Russia and still lives there!

He jibed: “Elena lives in and grew up in Moscow.”

“The royal family will have to congratulate someone from Russia.”

Why did Elena become Kazakh

Kazakhstan became an independent country in the early 1990s, seceding from the former Soviet Union.

In recent years, the oil-rich nation has been on a mission to recruit Russian players to compete under the Kazakh flag.

This initiative has been spearheaded by Kazakhstani billionaire Bulat Utemuratov, head of the country’s tennis federation, who is worth nearly 4 billion USD.

The press call it the ‘Rent-a-Russian’ phenomenon.

Rybakina is not the first to make the switch.

Alexander Bublik, Mikhael Kukushkin, Dmitry Popko and Andrey Golubev, are some other players who were born in Russia but have swapped their passports to Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh offer is hard to refuse as it guarantees attractive financial incentives.

Elena has admitted that pursuing her sporting career was difficult for her family financially, until the offer came from Kazakhstan.

Elena grateful to Kazakhsthan

The big-serving Rybakina was cheered on by the president of the Kazakhstani Tennis Association from the players box.

Elena too, made a point of thanking him in her victory speech on Centre Court.

She said, “I appreciate because you came to support me in the semi-final and now in the final and it’s unbelievable so I want to say a big thanks and to the rest of my team.”

Asked if she still ‘feels Russian’, Rybakina said, “What does it mean for you to feel? I mean, I’m playing tennis, so for me, I’m enjoying my time here.”

‘I feel for the players who couldn’t come here, but I’m just enjoying playing here on the biggest stage, enjoying my time and trying to do my best.

‘I’m playing already for Kazakhstan for a long time. I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan.

‘They believed in me. There is no more question about how I feel. It’s just already a long time, my journey as a Kazakh player.

‘I was born in Russia, yes, but I’m representing Kazakhstan. I don’t know why we have to come back to this.”

Congratulations Elena for achieving your dreams, albeit under a different flag!

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