Two Polish greats, Agnieszka Radwanska and Iga Swiatek, played a charity exhibition match at the Tauron Arena in Krakow on Saturday to raise money for children affected by the war in Ukraine.
"This is a very important issue for me. I never imagined that the war could be so close. I was born at a time when our part of Europe was quite peaceful... My ribbon will remain. Many players do not want to comment on the war, I respect that, because everyone does as they see fit. Iga Świątek
Watched by 10,000 people, former World No 2 Radwanska, who retired from the WTA Tour in 2018, claimed a win over the current World No 1, Swiatek, in a one-set duel, 6-4.
“It was a return to tennis for me after a few years,” Radwanska said. “I would not have imagined that I would play a match with the best player in the world at home, in Krakow.
“But I did it only for this great initiative, not for my own career.
“When I received a call from Iga with the proposal there was no way I could refuse.
“Such events are probably the best way to help children from Ukraine, who are left with nothing.
“We can hope that it will be a donation that will help them return to a normal life.”
The ‘Swiatek & Friends for Ukraine’ event crystallised for the World No 1 after she suffered an early 3rd round defeat at Wimbledon, and suggested hosting a charity event in Krakow, which has raised at least €422,000 in proceeds for Ukraine relief.
The idea had been percolating in Swiatek’s mind ever since the war broke out in February, and developed in discussions with her team on the flight from Doha to Indian Wells.
Swiatek initially reached out to Svitolina for the one-on-one exhibition, but the Ukrainian was sidelined due to pregnancy, which paved the way for her to reach out to Radwanska.
“This is a very important issue for me,” said Swiatek. “I never imagined that the war could be so close. I was born at a time when our part of Europe was quite peaceful.”
“I noticed that, at first, interest in what was happening in Ukraine appeared in the tennis world, many players put on ribbons in the colours of this country but, with time it changed, the ribbons disappeared after two or three matches.
“My ribbon will remain,” added Swiatek. “Many players do not want to comment on the war, I respect that, because everyone does as they see fit.”
Radwanska, a 2012 Wimbledon finalist, accepted Swiatek’s invitation when the 21-year-old asked her if she was willing to take part, as did Svitolina, the 2018 WTA Finals Champion, former ATP Tour player Sergiy Stakhovsky and rising Polish junior Martyn Pawelski, while Ukrainian footballer Andrey Shevchenko also attended as a special guest.
The event began with a mixed doubles match with Radwanska partnered by Ukraine’s Stachowski while Swiatek teamed with Polish junior player Martyn Pawelski, which ended with a 6-4 win to Swiatek & Pawelski.
Shortly after, Swiatek and Radwanska took to the court for the main event of the day and, rather unexpectedly, the showcase set was won by Radwanska, 6-4, which prompted a standing ovation from the crowd.
Radwanska was the torch-bearer for Polish tennis for over a decade before she retired in 2018, which was the same year that a 17-year-old Swiatek won junior Wimbledon.
“It’s pretty funny because when I started on WTA, that was her first year where she didn’t play,” Swiatek said. “I was pretty sad that we never got a chance to even be around [each other].”
The charity event was attended by Polish President Andrzej Duda who, earlier in the day, received the Olympic Gold Order in Krakow, which was presented by IOC President Thomas Bach at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Club in the historic halls of the city’s French Hotel.
Ukraine’s Svitolina, who is expecting her first child with husband Gael Monfils in September, umpired the match between Swiatek and Radwanska.
“I feel that very few people and countries understand the horrible war that is happening in Ukraine,” Svitolina told VOA. “For us, these kinds of events are very important, where we can speak to people.
“Join [together] and unite so we can help. Hopefully, we can celebrate the win of Ukraine [in the future].”
Svitolina, who was born in Odessa, is an ambassador for United 24, an organisation launched by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to collect charitable donations in support of Ukraine.
Funds raised by Swiatek’s exhibition will be distributed between UNITED 24, UNICEF Poland and the Elina Svitolina Foundation.
“When the invasion started, it was extremely tough, mentally, to compete and to have my family in Ukraine,” Svitolina told the Telegraph recently. “For me, I felt not in the right place when I was playing on the court.
“I was worried about my family. It was really tough to focus 100 per cent on my job, that’s why I wanted to share my view. But right now I’m really happy I could take my time, refocus myself, find where I’m needed.”
She continues to raise awareness of the conflict by working with various organisations and attended the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Switzerland before officiating the Swiatek-Radwanska on Saturday.
“I want people to know what is happening, because I feel like it’s faded away a little bit from the news,” she said.
Svitolina also reiterated her position that the tours should take further steps, and backed Wimbledon’s decision to not allow Russians to compete at the grass-court Grand Slam.
The decision led the ATP and WTA to strip ranking points from the event, saying the move contravened the tours’ non-discrimination rules.
“I do not agree with the statement the WTA and ATP made,” she said. “I think they should do more in regards to Ukrainian players, towards Ukraine, but I have a lot of respect, and want to thank Wimbledon, for making players feel supported.”
The former World No 3 did not indicate when she plans to return to tour competition.
Meanwhile, Radwanska believes Swiatek is the one that stands out on the WTA Tour.
“I think the top 10 is pretty open,” Radwanska told Eurosport recently. “I think there are a lot of players playing at the same level.
“I think Iga Swiatek and Ash Barty, before she retired, are the only two players that are playing very consistently, very powerfully.
“Those two – that would be like [Novak] Djokovic and [Rafael] Nadal at the moment in men’s tennis.”
Swiatek has had a stunning 2022 season as she set the new record for the most consecutive wins in the 21st century in the women’s game – 37.
“Ash, unfortunately, she has gone, so it is only Iga, and, I think, except Iga, everyone has the same chance,” Radwanksa continued. “The level is very cool and that is why you can see a lot of different names, even different names not from the top 30 in the second week of a Grand Slam.
“I think those kinds of years – everything is going to change. A lot of older players retired and now it is an open space,” Radwanska added.
The Polish legend began training in earnest to prepare for her showdown with the World No 1, and impressed at the Wimbledon Legends event earlier in the month where she played alongside Jelena Jankovic.
After spending the week practicing with Swiatek, Radwanska was ready, using all her court-craft and guile to keep the younger Pole moving all over the court to win the exhibition set.
After a hug at the net and a standing ovation for both women from the crowd, Swiatek signed the camera with a singular message: ‘Aga, come back on tour!’
The event was a resounding success, raising over €422,000 Euros for the 3 organisations helping Ukrainian children.
“It’s been absolutely unforgettable day,” Swiatek concluded. “I still need to wrap my mind around it and, for now, I just want to thank you all.”
The World No 1 moves on to Warsaw to play the BNP Paribas Polish Open next week, where she is the top seed at the WTA 250 clay-court event.