Natela Dzalamidze arrived at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club earlier than usual on Sunday and took time to chat with DW before training.
The 29-year-old doubles specialist has been in the spotlight ahead of Wimbledon, not because she and her playing partner Alexsandra Krunic are among the favourites, but because of the national flag she will play under.
Despite being born on the Russian island of Sakhalin, north of Japan, Dzalamidze no longer represents the country of his birth and that of his mother, but Georgia, where his father hails from.
In doing so, the world number 45 has circumvented the Wimbledon ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes, imposed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Dzalamidze, who has held a Georgian passport for the past six years, began the process of officially changing her sporting allegiance shortly after the invasion and submitted her documents to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in late May. The WTA confirmed her change of status on June 6, a week before the Wimbledon registration deadline.
“I made my decision because I am focusing on my career and I would like to have the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games,” he told the British newspaper “The Times”.
At the World Swimming Championships currently taking place in Budapest, Russian and Belarusian athletes are banned due to the invasion of Ukraine, as are events in most other sports.
Russians, Belarusians excluded only at Wimbledon
However, in tennis, the men’s ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and the WTA tours see their players more as independent entrepreneurs than as representatives of the governments of their countries and therefore decided that athletes in question should be able to compete under a neutral flag.
However, the four Grand Slams operate independently of the ATP and WTA, and the All England Club, which organizes Wimbledon, is said to have made its decision to exclude the Russian and Belarusian players in close consultation with the British government.
To discourage events from following suit, the ATP and WTA withdrew world ranking points that players would normally have earned at the tournament. Since then, there have been many behind-the-scenes rumors and every decision, such as Dzalamidze’s change of allegiance, is viewed with suspicion.
‘I followed the rules’
“I didn’t cheat Wimbledon or the players. I followed the rules,” Dzalamidze told DW. “We received emails with registration deadlines… There was also a line that said that any player who wanted to change his nationality had to do it before June 3.”
Dzalamidze said that after reading that line, he expected that several other players would also change their nationality. In the end, however, she was the only one.
She said that she originally hoped to make her debut for her new nation in a preparatory tournament, but these plans had to be canceled due to health reasons.
“I knew it would become a big problem if I started playing as a Georgian at Wimbledon,” she said.
Natela Dzalamidze “was ashamed to have a Russian passport”
‘Unfair general prejudice’
Dzalamidze’s father’s family fled what is now the autonomous republic of Abkhazia. [officially part of Georgia] in 1992, when the war was at its height. She was born a year later, so she has no personal experience of the war, but she is horrified by what is happening in the Ukraine.
“It is impossible for me to understand the pain and the situation there,” he said. “I can’t understand what it’s like when rockets are flying and you’re in fear for your life.”
These are strong words for a Russian-born athlete, even if she avoids using the word “war,” which can get her in trouble with the law in Russia.
“I understand the Ukrainians and their position. When it started, I was the subject of a lot of aggressive behavior and messages even from people close to me,” she said, before emphasizing that neither she nor any other Russian athlete had anything to do with it. with the decision to invade Ukraine.
“I don’t want to make excuses for what is happening in Ukraine, but for us athletes it is unfair to be subjected to this general prejudice,” he said.
“At first I was embarrassed to have a Russian passport, but then I thought: ‘I’m a good person, why do I feel like this?’ For many years I worked hard to achieve my goals as an athlete and then because one person decided to start something terrible, am I supposed to forget about my life and my career?
Hate messages from Georgia
Most of the hateful messages he has received on social media since announcing his decision to switch allegiances have come from Georgia, he said.
“Most thought he was just trying to take advantage of the Wimbledon situation before going back to the Russian federation.” But that, Dzalamidze said, is completely out of the question.
“My name is Russian, but my last name is not. I am half Russian,” she said. “In Russia, everyone understands that I am not completely Russian when they see my name, which comes from Georgia.”
This article was translated from German.