As Roland-Garros begins, the war in Ukraine shakes the locker room

PARIS — The idea for the men’s and women’s tennis tours was to take a strong stand against Wimbledon’s decision to exclude players from Russia and Belarus, and then let tennis and competition keep the conversation away from politics and football. invasion of Ukraine.

It didn’t work that way.

On Monday, the second day of Roland-Garros, the politics of tennis and Russia once again made their appearance. The pro tours’ announcement on Friday night that they would not be awarding ranking points this year at Wimbledon, essentially turning tennis’ most prestigious event into an exhibition and punishing players who did well there last year , rocked the sport, sparking heated debate over the game’s role in a deeply unpopular war and dominating the conversation at the second Grand Slam of the year.

Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine spoke fondly of the invasion, saying she cared little about winning or losing. Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1, spoke about the disarray of the sport. One of the biggest stars, Naomi Osaka, has said she is leaning towards skipping Wimbledon if the decision not to award ranking points for match wins stands.

“I feel like it’s not united,” Swiatek said after beating Tsurenko, 6-2, 6-0, in his opener while wearing a Ukraine pin on his cap, as she has been doing it for three months. “It’s all the people who organize tournaments, like, for example, the WTA, the ATP and the ITF, they all have different points of view, and it’s not common. the locker room, so it’s quite hard.

Swiatek’s comments came shortly after Tsurenko described how lost she had been since late February. Tsurenko, who was ranked No. 23 in 2019, said she initially just wanted to go home and figure out how she could help the war effort, but she decided to keep playing and took part in d important tournaments in Miami and India. Wells, California.

Then, after an early defeat in a tournament in Marbella, Spain, and no tournament on her schedule for another three weeks, she realized she had nowhere to live or train. With the help of another Ukrainian player, Marta Kostyuk, she arrives at the Piatti Tennis Center in Italy, but the psychological challenge remains to balance her career as her country faces an existential threat.

“I just want to enjoy every game, but at the same time I don’t feel like I care too much,” she said. “I try to find that balance between just going on the court and not giving a damn or trying to care. In some cases, that helps.”

After feeling emboldened by Wimbledon’s decision to ban players from Russia and Belarus, Tsurenko and her compatriots were disheartened by the WTA’s decision to fight back.

“When it’s not in your country, you don’t really understand how terrible it is,” Tsurenko said. Compared to what she and her country have been through, giving up chances for ranking points seems like a small price to pay, she said. “For them, it feels like they’re losing their jobs,” she said of the banned players. “I also feel a lot of bad things. I feel a lot of terrible things and I think that compared to that losing a chance to play in a tournament is nothing.

She hates the propaganda used by the Russian government to denigrate her country. She said no more than five players have expressed support for her since the war began. She dreads being drawn against a Russian player in a tournament.

Dayana Yastremska, also from Ukraine who also lost on Monday, said the decision to withhold points for Wimbledon was not fair to Ukrainian players.

“We’re not a happy family right now,” said Yastremska, who still doesn’t have a training base and doesn’t know where she will be spending the next few weeks.

In an interview this month, Steve Simon, the WTA Tour’s chief executive, said the organization should stick to its principle that tournament access for players should be based solely on merit. He also said that discriminating against a player because of the actions of his country’s government was not acceptable.

“I can’t imagine what the Ukrainian people are going through and feeling right now, and I feel bad for these athletes who are being asked to take the blame for someone else’s actions,” Simon said.

Russian players have expressed disappointment with Wimbledon’s decision and appreciation for the tour’s support to protect what they see as their right to play, although no player has sought redress from the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Jeffrey Kessler, an experienced right-to-play attorney, said tennis players from Russia and Belarus would most likely have a strong case.

“We are professional athletes, we strive every day in what we do and we basically want to work,” said Karen Khachanov of Russia, who won her first-round match on Sunday and was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon l last year.

One of the few players who did not express an opinion was Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, a former world number one and a member of the WTA Players Council, but her distress over the disagreement was clear.

“I say one thing, it will be criticized; I’m saying another thing, it’s going to be criticized,” said Azarenka, who once had a close relationship with President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus.

In its statement on Friday, the ATP said its rules and agreements exist to protect the rights of all players as a whole: “Unilateral decisions of this nature, if not taken into account, set a precedent damaging for the rest of the tour. Discrimination by individual tournaments is simply not viable on a tour that operates in over 30 countries.

The tangible impact of the ATP and WTA decisions on the sport was evident on Monday as Osaka aired her feelings on possibly skipping Wimbledon. She’s not a fan of grass surfaces to begin with, and without the chance to improve her rankings, she might struggle to find the motivation.

“The intention was really good, but the execution is all over the place,” Osaka said.

Swiatek, who is from Poland, which has perhaps supported Ukraine more than any other country, says locker room conversations, which might once have been about changing the ball during games, have turned into discussions on war, peace and politics. She refrained from openly declaring her position, but barely masked her feelings.

“Not all Russian and Belarusian players are responsible for what happens in their country,” Swiatek said. “But on the other hand, sport has been used in politics and we are sort of public figures and we have a certain impact on people. It would be nice if the people who make the decisions make decisions that will stop Russian aggression.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: