As the French open begins, the war in Ukraine rolls in the locker room

PARIS – The idea that men’s and women’s tennis tours were to take a strong stand against Wimbledon’s decision to keep players out of Russia and Belarus, then let tennis and competition move away from the politics and invasion of Ukraine.

It didn’t work out that way.

On Monday, the second day of the French Open, the politics of tennis and Russia reared its head once more. The Professional Tours’ announcement Friday night that it would not award awards points this year at Wimbledon, is essentially turning into one of the most prestigious events in tennis and punishing players who did well there last year, igniting a sharp debate over the sport. The game’s role is in a deeply unpopular war and dominating the conversation at the year’s second Grand Slam.

Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine spoke emotionally about the invasion, saying it made her care about winning or losing. Iga Swiatek, the world no. 1, talked of the sport being in disarray. Naomi Osaka, one of the biggest stars, said she was leaning toward skipping Wimbledon if the decision was not made to award points for the match victories standing there.

“I feel like it’s not united,” Swiatek said after defeating Tsurenko, 6-2, 6-0, in an opening match while pinning an Ukraine pin on her cap, as she has for the past three months. “It’s all the people who are organizing tournaments, like, for example, WTA, ATP and ITF, they all have separate views, and it’s not combined. We feel that in the locker room a little bit, so it’s pretty hard. “

Swiatek’s comments came shortly after Tsurenko described how lost she has been since late February. Tsurenko, who was ranked as high as No. In 23, 2019, she said she first wanted to go home and figure out how she could help the war effort, but she decided to keep playing and competing in important tournaments in Miami and Indian Wells, Calif.

Then, after an early loss at a tournament in Marbella, Spain, and another tournament for another three weeks, she realized she was now there to live or train. With the help of another player from Ukraine, Marta Kostyuk, she landed at the Piatti Tennis Center in Italy, but the psychological challenge of balancing her career while facing her country faces an existential threat.

“I just want to enjoy every match, but at the same time, I don’t feel I care too much,” she said. “I’m trying to find this balance between just going to court and not caring versus trying to care. In some cases it helps. “

After feeling emboldened by Wimbledon’s decision to bar players from Russia and Belarus, Tsurenko and his compatriots were disheartened by the WTA’s decision to strike back.

“When it’s not in your country you don’t really understand how terrible it is,” Tsurenko said. Compared with what she and her country have been through, giving up the chances for rankings seems like a small price to pay, she said. “For them, they feel like they are losing their job,” she said of the players who are barred. “I also feel many bad things. I feel a lot of terrible things, and I think, compared to that, losing a game to a tournament is nothing. “

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

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

“We’re not a happy family right now,” said Yastremska, who still doesn’t have a training base and was unsure where she would spend the next weeks.

In an interview this month, Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA Tour, said the organization had to live up to its principle that access to tournaments should be based on merit alone. He also said that discriminating against a player because of his actions was not acceptable to the government.

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

Russian players have expressed disappointment in Wimbledon’s decision and appreciation of the tours’ support in protecting what they view as their right to play, though no player has sought relief in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer with experience in right-to-play cases, said tennis players from Russia and Belarus would most likely have a strong case.

“We are professional athletes, we put effort into what we do every day and basically want to work,” said Karen Khachanov of Russia, who won her opening-round match on Sunday and was a semifinalist at Wimbledon last year.

One of the few players not expressing an opinion was Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a former world no. 1 and a member of the WTA Players’ Council, but her distress over the disagreement was clear.

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

In its statement Friday, the ATP said its rules and agreements existed to protect all rights of players as a whole: “The nature of unilateral decisions, if unaddressed, sets a damaging precedent for the rest of the tour. Discrimination by individual tournaments is simply not viable on a tour that operates in more than 30 countries. “

The tangible impact of the ATP and WTA decisions on the sport was evident Monday as Osaka made his feelings known about possibly skipping Wimbledon. She is not a fan of grass surfaces to begin with, and without an opportunity to improve her ranking, she may struggle to find motivation.

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

Swiatek, who is from Poland, who has supported Ukraine more than any other country, said locker room conversations, which may have once been about changing balls during matches, have shifted to discussions of war, peace and politics. She stopped short of overtly stating her position, but she hardly masked her sentiments.

“All the Russian and Belarusian players are not responsible for what’s going on in their country,” Swiatek said. “But on the other hand, the sport has been used in politics and we are kind of public figures and we have some impact on people. It would be nice if the people who were making decisions were making decisions that are going to stop Russia’s aggression. “

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