An eye-popping, all-star selection of players at the Astana Open in Kazakhstan casts a spotlight on pro tennis players trying to maintain their careers amid an increasingly bitter war between Russia and Ukraine. Sports are not immune from geopolitics. This field– more reminiscent of a Masters 1000 than a 500 level event– will make for some brilliant tennis amid a backdrop of conflict.
Kazakhstan has been one of several nations getting an influx of Russian citizens crossing the border in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s mandated military call up for his Ukraine invasion. Astana is roughly 7 hours from the Russian border by car.
Tennis will be a momentary escape from the tension for some, but the contrast is palpable. Relations between Kazakhstan and Russia could not be more delicate at the moment. Sitting right between Russia and China, Kazakhstan is technically allied with both, though the president of Kazakhstan has made some critical remarks about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, possibly over concerns it could be next.
And tennis has put itself right in the middle of this atmosphere.
Djokovic and Alcaraz Lead the Field
If tennis fans could be anywhere in the world this week, they might wish to be in Atsana, recently renamed Nur-Sultan, if purely from a standpoint of sport. Newly minted world number one Carlos Alcaraz sits atop this jaw-dropping cast of stars, looking for title number 6 this year. 21-time Grand Slam Champion Novak Djokovic, fresh off his win in Tel Aviv, will be a magnet for crowds and TV viewers from around the world. Other huge names in this October tournament include Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev and Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Why is this draw so great? A few reasons. Kazakhstan has made a clear commitment to tennis by scooping up Russian-born players, funding them and giving them opportunities they might not have had otherwise. Those players include this year’s Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. If the Moscow-born WTA star had not become a citizen of Kazakhstan, she would not have even been able to play Wimbledon this year, due to the UK ban on Russian players in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. Kazakhstan has underlined its commitment to tennis by making this tournament loaded and special.
Russian Players Looking to Earn
Another reason some stars are playing this crowded 500 level event so late in the season is that, if they are Russian, it gives them a chance to recoup money and points missed from not playing Wimbledon and other UK events in the heart of the season. In addition to Medvedev, Russians entered in Astana include: Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov, Aslan Karatsev and more.
It’s not just the past year that was problematic from an earnings perspective, but these problems could continue to plague Russians and Belarussians into 2023. A migration official from the European Union has recently expressed a desire for a tougher policy on issuing visas for Russians traveling abroad. Sports stars are typically exempted from visa problems, but not always.
If this loaded draw goes to chalk, Tsitsipas could end up meeting Hubert Hurkacz in the Round of 16. A hard court victory here would give the Greek an ATP Tour win on each surface this season. Djokovic doesn’t have much of a challenge until the quarterfinals where he could potentially meet Medvedev. An Alcaraz vs. Rublev in the Round of 16 would be a tantalizing tilt, especially since the indoor hard court conditions might give the redhead an equalizing factor.
Whatever happens this week, the tensions outside the venue will remain high while the tennis inside will be world class. It’s an odd-feeling combination, but it’s not new for sports and geopolitics to intersect.