It was just before midday on Thursday in Paris when Daniil Medvedev walked on to Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros for his second-round match against Laslo Djere and waved to the arena, which was a little more than half full. He was accompanied by a child, just as his opponent had been, and the child was dressed all in white, like an angel. It was Ascension Day in France, a public holiday.
Medvedev was greeted with warm applause. After the warm-up, he walked to the baseline to begin the match and a voice shouted out ‘Allez Daniil’ and it was followed by others. There was no animosity towards him because he is a Russian playing at a time when his country’s army is laying waste to swathes of Ukraine.
There was respect for his ability and his status as the world No 2 and the US Open champion. Nothing else.
Wimbledon have banned Russian players from taking part, a move affecting Daniil Medvedev
Medvedev still distrusts the way the ball behaves on the red clay of the French Open but he won in straight sets and the crowd rose to acclaim him as he acknowledged each of the stands.
Mats Wilander, a great former champion here, complimented him warmly in their post-match interview, conducted in English, and, at the end of it, Medvedev said a few words in French, which were well received. On his way off court, he signed every giant green tennis ball thrust at him by kids who had rushed to get his autograph.
Afterwards in the press centre, he was erudite and humble. He was asked, randomly, about his fear of spiders and he used the question to talk about fear in general. ‘A lot of the mistakes we make in life,’ Medvedev said, ‘are because we are scared of something… Fear is what we feel every day in tennis. Maybe it’s when you’re scared to lose. But I am not scared of much right now in my life.’
The objections to the All England Club are just caveats, but players involved will get over it
He even seemed to have made peace with the prospect that he will not be able to play Wimbledon next month because the tournament, unlike the French Open, has banned all Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing. Medvedev said he would still love to play at the All England Club but if that were not possible, he would return home and practise.
If he has made peace with the prospect of his ban, tennis has not. Nor has the world of sport in general. Punishing a blameless individual for the actions of a nation may not be philosophically untenable but it is hard to bear and has led to the ATP and the WTA, the governing bodies of men’s and women’s tennis, withholding ranking points for England’s Grand Slam.
Those who are vehemently opposed to Wimbledon’s ban, which will affect not just Medvedev but Andrey Rublev, Aryna Sabalenka and others, point out that even during the apartheid era in South Africa, South African tennis players and golfers were allowed to continue competing on the world stage. Kevin Curren reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1983, while he was still a South African citizen.
In the end, though, these objections to the All England Club decision are just caveats. The ban is not fair but then – and I’m sorry to be reductive – try talking about fairness to the families of Ukrainian civilians murdered by indiscriminate Russian shelling or tortured and killed by Russian soldiers in Bucha. It’s not fair, but Medvedev will get over it.
The choice is right and stops Vladimir Putin from weaponising sport as he has done in the past
I don’t like the All England Club’s decision but I believe it’s right. Medvedev is playing at Roland Garros largely because the French government has adopted a more conciliatory stance to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. His ban from Wimbledon is rooted in the British government’s harder line on the crisis.
The unavoidable truth is that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, weaponised sport a long time ago and has twisted it ruthlessly and effectively for his own ends and to boost Russia’s profile and image on the international stage. We turned a blind eye to that for too long but we cannot be complicit in it any more.
I’m not sure that the distinction between banning Russian teams from competition but protecting Russian individuals is valid, anyway. Are we supposed to pretend Medvedev isn’t representing Russia just because there is no Russian flag next to his name at Roland Garros? The IOC tried that with their absurd renaming of the Russia team as the Russia Olympic Committee and made themselves a laughing stock. There is either power in banning Russian athletes or there isn’t.
If Medvedev had won Wimbledon, it could have been a huge propaganda coup for Putin
Putin has used sport as an ally and an accomplice. He used the Sochi Winter Olympics and football’s 2018 World Cup as propaganda vehicles for his country that can be seen now as instruments of rejuvenated nationalism that paved the way for the attack on Ukraine. In March, when Putin held a pro-war rally at the Luzhniki Stadium, which hosted the 2018 World Cup final, Russian Olympians wearing the nationalist ‘Z’ symbol were celebrated on stage.
If you think sport and politics need to be kept separate, it’s time to come out of the jungle because that war ended a long time ago and you lost. B2 Stealth Bombers fly overhead before the Super Bowl and fabulously wealthy states like Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Qatar buy European football clubs and use them shamelessly and relentlessly to clean their image abroad. You only need to see how aggressively fans try to shield those owners and their nations from criticism to see how effectively the ploy works.
If Medvedev were to have won Wimbledon – and there was a decent chance of that happening – the sad truth is that it would have been greeted as a huge propaganda coup by Putin, a Russian triumph at the heart of the British establishment. Putin has twinned sport and war in the public mind so that a triumph in sport can be seen as a victory for nationalism. The ban may not be fair on Medvedev and his compatriots but it is hard to blame Wimbledon for doing what it had to do to avoid that scenario.
EASY, JOSE… IT’S ONLY THE CONFERENCE!
Everyone in sport gets there in the end. However obnoxious, unpleasant, graceless and narcissistic they may have been in their prime, there comes a point where longevity earns you affection. Jimmy Connors was a good example of that and now Jose Mourinho is occupying the same space.
Look, I admit it: it was hard not to feel pleased for him when emotion overcame him in the wake of Roma’s victory over Feyenoord in the final of the Europa Conference League in Tirana last week. Tears come to him readily on the touchline these days.
What I don’t quite understand is the rush to use the triumph in this particular competition as evidence Mourinho is still the world’s leading manager. It’s bizarre.
The rush to use Roma’s Conference League glory to praise Jose Mourinho has been bizarre
Roma beat Vitesse Arnhem, Bodo/Glimt and Leicester in a bad year on the way to the final. That’s all. Ten years ago, Mourinho would have been embarrassed by winning the Europa Conference League. Don’t take my word for it. Take his. ‘I don’t want to win the Europa League,’ Mourinho said after Rafa Benitez won it with Chelsea in 2013. ‘It would be a big disappointment for me.’
It may have been Mourinho’s fifth European trophy but it was the least prestigious by far. Winning Roma’s first European trinket is something special for the fans but don’t attach kudos to it that it simply doesn’t deserve. Under Mourinho, Roma finished sixth in Serie A last season, behind Lazio.
If Mourinho wants anyone other than his social media acolytes to think he can be special again, it’ll take a lot more than winning the Europa Conference League to do it.