Russian-born Natela Dzalamidze changed her nationality even before the Wimbledon suspension of Russian and Belarusian professionals. She now plays for Georgia. A decision that she defends against criticism.
Natela Dzalamidze arrived at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club facility a little earlier than usual. The 29-year-old doubles specialist would like to take the time to talk to DW before her next two training sessions in the afternoon and evening at the training facility in Aorangi Park in Wimbledon. In the days leading up to the start of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament, the attention paid to her was unusually high for number 45 in the world rankings.
Because Dzalamidze no longer starts in international tennis tournaments for Russia, her mother’s country of birth, but for Georgia, her father’s home country. In doing so, she avoids the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s Wimbledon tournament. In London, she will serve alongside her doubles partner, Serbian Alexsandra Krunic. “I made the decision because I want to concentrate on my career and have the chance to take part in the Olympic Games,” Dzalamidze explained to the English newspaper “The Times” a few days ago about her change of country at short notice.
The athlete from St. Petersburg had started the process of changing nations after the beginning of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and before the decision of the tournament organization in Wimbledon to exclude her. She has had a Georgian passport in addition to the Russian one for six years and – as she emphasizes in the interview – she has followed all the rules. The WTA confirmed the move on June 6 – a week before the Wimbledon registration deadline. It already appears on the list of participants under its new country code. The player’s decision and the timing of the change in a time window that is very sensitive for all sides in terms of sports policy is polarizing.
The entangled situation in tennis
Russian and Belarusian athletes are currently banned from most sporting events. However, those responsible for the professional tours for men and women in tennis, the ATP and WTA tours, see their players less as representatives of the governments of their countries and more as independent entrepreneurs. They therefore quickly decided that the athletes concerned could take part in the events under a neutral flag.
However, the four Grand Slam tournaments are not part of the ATP and WTA tour. The organizers of Wimbledon acted very closely in coordination with the British government when it came to the exclusion, as was heard from England. To prevent further precedents, the ATP and WTA decided that no world ranking points would be awarded at the most prestigious tournament of the year. Since then things have been boiling behind the scenes and every decision, such as this change of nations, is viewed with suspicion.
“Didn’t trick anyone”
“I didn’t trick Wimbledon or my fellow players and I followed the rules,” Natela Dzalamidze defended in an interview with DW. In the emails after Wimbledon’s decision, all players would have received information about the deadlines and reporting processes. “One line even said that players who want to change their nation have to do it before June 3,” reports Dzalamidze. She, therefore, expected several changes. But the doubles player remained an isolated case in world tennis.
“I was ashamed to have a Russian passport,” says Natela Dzalamidze
“Of course, I expected this attention when I decided to take this step in March. I started the process before the French Open because I wanted to play preparatory tournaments for Wimbledon as a Georgian,” she says. However, for health reasons, nothing came of it. “I knew if I showed up first at Wimbledon it would make waves.”
“General prejudices are unfair”
Dzalamidze’s father’s family fled what is now the autonomous republic of Abkhazia in 1992. Red ], which was then at war. She herself was born a year later. She didn’t experience the war personally, but says about the situation in Ukraine: “It hurts a lot to see what’s happening in Ukraine. I’m speechless and can’t imagine what it’s like when rockets are flying around and your life is threatened.”
For a Russian-born athlete, those are strong words, even though she avoids the word war. In Russia you can be prosecuted for this. “I understand the position of the Ukrainians and I also received a lot of aggressive messages at the beginning and try not to spark any discussions. But we have no influence on this decision as athletes,” she explains and then becomes very emotional on a personal level.
“I don’t want to make any excuses for what’s happening in Ukraine, but for us athletes, it’s very unfair to experience the general prejudices. At first, I was ashamed to have a Russian passport,” says Dzalamidze. After a while, I questioned myself: “I’m a good person, why do I get this feeling? I’ve worked hard as an athlete for many years to achieve my goals. And because of a decision to start something terrible, I’ve lost my life and forgotten my career?”
Hate news from Georgia
Most of the hate messages she has received on social media since announcing her change of nationality has come from Georgia. “Most thought I would just take advantage of the situation at Wimbledon and then switch back to the Russian FA afterwards,” but Dzalamidze says that’s definitely not the case.
“My first name is Russian, but my last name isn’t. I’m half-Russian,” she says. “In Russia everyone understands that I’m not a complete Russian when they see my name, which comes from Georgia.”