At the start of the French Open, the war in Ukraine shakes the dressing rooms


At the start of the French Open, the war in Ukraine shakes the dressing rooms

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

It didn’t work that way.

On Monday, the second day of the French Open, tennis and Russia politics rose again. The pro tours’ announcement on Friday night that they would not be awarding ranking points at Wimbledon this year, essentially turning tennis’s most prestigious event into an exhibition and penalizing players who did well there over the last year, roiled the sport and one sparked sharp debate about the game’s role in a deeply unpopular war and the dominant conversation at the second Grand Slam of the year.

Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine spoke emotionally about the invasion and said she cared little about winning or losing. World No. 1 Iga Swiatek spoke of the sport being in disarray. One of the biggest stars, Naomi Osaka, said she was inclined to skip Wimbledon if the decision not to award ranking points for match wins there stood.

“I feel like it’s not unanimous,” Swiatek said after beating Tsurenko 6-2, 6-0 in their opening game while sporting a Ukraine pin on her cap as she has for the past three months. “It’s all the people who organize tournaments, such as WTA, ATP and ITF, they all have different views and it’s not common. We feel that a little bit in the dressing room, so it’s pretty tough.”

Swiatek’s comment came shortly after Tsurenko described how lost she had been since late February. Tsurenko, who finished at No. 23 in 2019, said she initially just wanted to go home and figure out how she could help with the war effort, but she decided to keep playing and competed in major tournaments in Miami and Indian Wells, California

Then, after an early loss at a tournament in Marbella, Spain, and with no tournament on her schedule for three weeks, she realized she had nowhere to live or train. With the help of another player from Ukraine, Marta Kostyuk, she ended up at Piatti Tennis Center in Italy, but the psychological challenge of balancing her career while her country faces an existential threat remains.

“I just want to enjoy every game, but at the same time I don’t feel like I care too much,” she said. “I’m trying to find that balance between just going on the pitch and not caring or trying to caring. In some cases it 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 hit back.

“If 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 any chance of ranking points seems a small price to pay, she said. “For them, they feel like they’re losing their jobs,” she said of the players who are suspended. “I also feel a lot of bad things. I feel a lot of terrible things and I think losing a chance to play in a tournament is nothing compared to that.

She hates the propaganda with which the Russian government denigrates her country. She said no more than five players have expressed support for her since the war began. She fears being drawn against a Russian player in a tournament.

Dayana Yastremska, also from Ukraine and also losing on 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 doesn’t have a training base yet and wasn’t sure where she would spend the next few weeks.

In an interview this month, WTA Tour chief executive Steve Simon said the organization must live up to its policy that player access to tournaments should be based on merit alone. He also said that it is not acceptable to discriminate against a player based on the actions of his country’s government.

“I cannot imagine what the Ukrainian people are going through and feeling at this moment and I feel sorry for these athletes who are being asked to take the blame for the actions of others,” Simon said.

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

“We are professional athletes, we strive for our work every day and basically we want to work,” said Karen Khachanov of Russia, who won his match in the opening round on Sunday and was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year.

One of the few players not to voice an opinion was Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a former world No. 1 and member of the WTA Players’ Council, but her despair at the disagreement was clear.

“I will say one thing, it will be criticized; I’m saying something else, there will be criticism,” 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 were in place to protect the rights of all players overall: “Unilateral decisions of this nature, if left unaddressed, will set a damaging precedent for the rest of the tour. Discrimination by individual tournaments is simply not feasible with a tour that takes place in more than 30 countries.”

The palpable impact of the ATP and WTA decisions on the sport was evident on Monday as Osaka expressed her feelings about possibly skipping Wimbledon. She’s not a fan of lawns to begin with, and without an opportunity to improve her ranking, she might struggle to find motivation.

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

Swiatek, who hails from Poland, which has perhaps supported Ukraine more than any other country, said the locker room conversations that might have previously been about changing balls during games have turned into discussions about war , peace and politics shifted. She stopped openly stating her position, but she barely hid her feelings.

“All Russian and Belarusian players are not responsible for what is happening in their country,” Swiatek said. “But on the other hand, sport has been used in politics and we’re kind of a public person and have some influence over people. It would be nice if the people who make decisions made decisions that stop Russia’s aggression.”

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