Russia's Tennis Exodus: Olympic Dreams and Citizenship Changes

More and more Russian athletes are changing their citizenship in order to have a country to represent, and the latest in the series is promising tennis player Alexander Schevcenko, who will play for Kazakhstan in the future

by Sededin Dedovic
Russia's Tennis Exodus: Olympic Dreams and Citizenship Changes
© Sarah Reed / Getty Images

Russian professional tennis players continue to look for opportunities outside their homeland in light of Russia's ban from all sports competitions. The latest player to join this exodus is the very talented Alexander Shevchenko, who chose to represent Kazakhstan instead of Russia.

The decision sent shockwaves through the Russian tennis community, raising questions about the motives behind such moves. The announcement came via social media, where the 23-year-old tennis prodigy expressed his pride in representing Kazakhstan.

"Hello everyone, I just want to let everyone know that starting next week I will be representing Kazakhstan on the field. I'm very proud and I can't wait to get out on the field, trying to create unforgettable moments for me and the country," wrote the 23-year-old Shevchenko on social networks.

Born in Rostov-on-Don, Shevchenko has made good results lately and recently reached the 48th position on the ATP list. His decision to change his nationality, however, has sparked debate and speculation, especially within the Russian sports community.

There was criticism as well as comments that justified this move. Russian and Belarusian athletes who have qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics will be able to participate, but as neutrals, the International Olympic Committee has confirmed.

Therefore, they would not represent Russia or any other country, but Shevceko decided to play for Kazakhstan. The conditions for their competition include competing without their country's flag, emblem or anthem. Athletes from those countries were banned after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Allowing individuals to participate is about "respecting human rights," the IOC said. Ukraine had threatened to boycott the Games if the ban was not upheld before changing its stance in the summer. "AINs are athletes with Russian or Belarusian passports.

Strict eligibility conditions based on the recommendations issued by the IOC Executive Board on 28 March 2023 for international federations and organizers of international sporting events will apply”. It also said that athletes and support staff who actively support the war in Ukraine must remain excluded.

"Protecting the right of individual athletes to compete despite the suspension of their National Olympic Committee is a well-established practice, respecting human rights," the IOC said.

Daniil Medvedev od Russia© Thomas Kronsteiner / Getty Images

Speculations and reactions

Some, however, argue that the move could be a strategic decision to increase his chances of participating in the Olympics, like Svetlana Zhurova, a gold medalist in speed skating and a member of the Duma.

"He probably did it so he could play in the Olympics," she said. She believes financial incentives could be the driving force behind such a decision, but Shevchenko's case seems illogical given his recent success and the money on offer.

"Even before, our athletes moved to play for other countries, usually those who could not stand the competition. For me, Shevchenko's decision is a big surprise. It is completely illogical if he was not offered money," Zhurova points out.

Olympic Considerations

The Olympics play a key role in these decisions, as the rules dictate that a maximum of four tennis players from one country can participate in individual events. With great Russian players like Danilo Medvedev, Andrei Rublev, Karen Khachanov, Roman Safyuljin and Aslan Karatsev ahead of Shevchenko in the rankings, his chances of securing a spot are slim.

This raises the question of whether participation in the Games alone justifies a change of nationality, especially when it carries the risk of falling down the rankings. Shevchenko's case is unique in that he has not lived in Russia since the age of nine, having spent his formative years in Austria.

He has been in the academy of Gunter Breznik, the former coach of Dominik Tiem, for a long time. The decision to switch citizenships surprised many, given that Shevchenko had already broken into the top 50 and seemingly overcome the financial challenges associated with early career struggles.

The move echoes the decisions of other Russian tennis players such as Jelena Rybakina and Alexander Bublik, who changed their passports when they had no seniority and needed financial support. However, Shevchenko's case is different as he has already achieved a significant ranking and has been associated with a reputable tennis academy.

Shevchenko's decision adds to the growing list of Russian tennis players opting to change their citizenship. Varvara Gračova, currently 39th on the VTA list, received French citizenship, while promising junior Ksenija Jefremova followed suit.

The exodus has intensified since the start of the war in Ukraine, with around thirty junior players switching to Kazakhstani tennis. This trend highlights the sensitivity and pain associated with this topic in Russia. The tennis exodus from Russia, which is an example of Alexander Shevchenko's move to represent Kazakhstan, will not leave anyone in Russia indifferent.

Although there is speculation about the motivation behind such decisions, the impact on Russian tennis is undeniable. The Olympic Games in Paris are getting closer and closer, and we will see how many more such decisions will be made before the summer and the beginning of the Games.