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Tennis legend Martina Navratilova talks about Wimbledon's ban on Russian players

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tennis Grand Slam major, has barred Russian and Belarusian tennis players from participating in this year's tournament because of the invasion of Ukraine. The sports world has been taken aback by the All England Club's decision. The ramifications are huge for tennis. Several top players, including men's player Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev and women's player Aryna Sabalenka, have been banned from the tournament.

Our next guest, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, is nine-time Wimbledon singles champion Martina Navratilova. Welcome to the show.

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA: Thank you very much. Thank you.

SCHMITZ: The men's world No. 1 player, Novak Djokovic, has criticized the All England Club's decision, as have you. Tell us why you think this decision was a bad idea.

NAVRATILOVA: On an individual level, I just think it's a step in the wrong direction because you're punishing individuals for being from a particular country where they had nothing to do with the country's policy. I just don't think this solves anything. It just adds kind of more negativity to the whole situation, as bad as it is.

I understand where the Ukrainian players are coming from. They don't want to play against Belarusian or Russian players, but maybe the Russian players - you know, they've actually spoken out against the war at some potential personal cost, but that doesn't seem to matter. So it's just - I think it's an overreach, and I think it's not helpful.

SCHMITZ: It should be noted here that neither the French Open, which starts in a few weeks, nor the U.S. Tennis Association seems to be planning a similar ban. Why do you think the All England Club made this decision?

NAVRATILOVA: I am not sure where it started. I've heard some rumblings that it was more political than anything else, but I don't have the facts. So this is just kind of innuendo or rumors. But I just find it kind of hypocritical for some of the people involved that they now find a moral compass where they were doing business with Putin's Russia for decades and only pulled out a couple of weeks ago.

SCHMITZ: Right.

NAVRATILOVA: So it's like - really? And for the Russian players, and the Belarusian players even more so, you know, they're getting defaulted by proxy or banned by proxy. And imagine if the whole tennis world did that. They would only have one choice, which would be to leave their country.

SCHMITZ: Right.

NAVRATILOVA: I went through that in 1975, and I don't wish that on my worst enemy.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. And your opinion on this matter is given even more weight, I think, because you grew up in the former Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain. And at the age of 18, you requested and were granted political asylum in the United States. How does your personal experience impact your insight into this?

NAVRATILOVA: Well, it's obviously massive because when I defected in '75, it was a one-way ticket. I did not know if I would ever see my family again or how long it would be when I would see them, just making a phone call was an adventure. So I spoke to them maybe once every two or three weeks, and I did not see my mom for four years. I did not see my dad and my sister for five years.

And it was 11 years before I was able to go back to compete in the Fed Cup, which is now the Billie Jean King Cup, which is a competition between teams. And then we played Czechoslovakia in the finals, and the people ended up cheering for us more than the Czechs because it was all a political statement. Basically, I stuck it to the communist regime by leaving and succeeding. But it was a one-way ticket, so I lost all that time with my family that I could never get back, and it was brutal.

SCHMITZ: It's interesting this year in tennis. We've had sort of political controversy after controversy. We've had the Djokovic, you know, vaccination issue. We've had the WTA deciding not to play in China. What do you think of how this has just all sort of come down in the matter of months?

NAVRATILOVA: Well, it's funny. Again, sports and politics, whether they want to be intertwined or not, they are, which is why a lot of these countries that have questionable human rights record, like China, like Qatar, like Russia, like UAE and Saudi Arabia are getting the Formula One races, China getting Olympics twice, Russia getting the World Cup, Qatar getting the World Cup. They get validated by having those events. And how you treat your athletes, you know, makes a difference. Politics and sports are intertwined. That's why it's just so heartbreaking that athletes that are trying to do the right thing are still penalized.

SCHMITZ: Martina Navratilova, thanks so much for your time.

NAVRATILOVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.