Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur has questioned Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players by insisting that sports and politics should not mix.
Last week, Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing at this year’s Championships following the invasion of Ukraine, with the All England Club saying there was “no viable alternative”.
Jabeur has some experience of such situations, having being heavily criticised when defying Tunisian convention to play an Israeli opponent in 2020.
“It’s a very tough decision, I understand what the Ukrainian people are going through and I am totally against war,” Jabeur, the world number 10, said.
“But what I’ve always been told for so many years is to never mix sports and politics.”
Jabeur has made history for Arab tennis, becoming the first player – male or female – to break into the top 10 of the world rankings.
Though an icon for many across the Arab world, she suffered fierce criticism when sticking to her principles of not mixing sports and politics.
“I’ve had some situations of my own, especially in 2020 in the Billie Jean King Cup when we were supposed to play Israel,” she recalled.
In February that year, Jabeur took on Israeli opponents in both a singles and doubles game – winning both matches at the tournament in Finland.
Tunisia does not recognise the state of Israel, given the latter’s long-standing conflict with Palestine.
“It was very, very controversial,” Tunisian sports journalist Souhail Khmira told BBC Sport Africa.
“Usually if sports people come across an Israeli opponent here in Tunisia, they withdraw and refuse to play them – but Jabeur didn’t and she beat her.
“People were saying – ‘how can you do this? By doing this, you are acknowledging the presence and existence of Israel’. They told her she was a traitor.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not OK with that, calling it the normalisation of Israel, which is heavily frowned upon in Tunisia.”
In the same year, Tunisia’s government was furious when a French-Israeli opponent was allowed to play a tournament in the capital Tunis.
In 2013, the North African nation was suspended from the global Davis Cup tennis tournament after Malek Jaziri was ordered by the Tunisian Tennis Federation not to compete against an Israeli opponent.
Nonetheless, he did defy convention by playing an Israeli opponent later on in his career, as have a handful of others, including Jabeur.
“I 100% feel very sorry for the Palestinian people and I feel sorry for the children that are dying every day for 74 years,” she said court-side after her first-round Madrid Open win over Italy’s Jasmine Paolini on Thursday.
“What about all the other countries where people and children have been dying every day? For me, I don’t think we should mix politics and sports.
“But I know that also Russians and Belarusians have their families back home, so I’m not sure how much they can talk about it. So it’s a very difficult situation for both, especially for Ukrainians.”
Jabeur progressed to the last 32 with a 7-6 (9) 6-1 victory over Paolini, and will meet Russia’s Varvara Gracheva in the next round.
Following Wimbledon’s announcement, the men’s body, the ATP, said it could “set a damaging precedent for the game”, while the women’s body, the WTA, said it was “very disappointed”.
Wimbledon said it took its action to “limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible”.
Tunisian athletes are not the only ones to refuse to compete against Israelis with an Algerian and then a Sudanese judoka withdrawing from the 2020 Olympics rather than take on an Israel’s Tohar Butbul.
Algeria’s Fethi Nourine was suspended and sent home from Tokyo 2020 after he withdrew from the competition to avoid a potential meeting with Butbul.
His withdrawal gave Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool a walkover into the second round of the men’s -73kg category but he also pulled out of the Games rather than take on Butbul.