As Christmas approaches there are fears that the plight of the Ukrainian population suffering under President Putin’s persistent bombardment of public utilities will be forgotten, and what better way to focus the tennis world on the issue than to win a tournament, which is what Anhelina Kalinina did at the weekend.
We’re here to do everything to tell people, to introduce them [to] what is really happening in Ukraine, because a lot of people come to me and ask, ‘Is there still a war?’ And this is really painful to hear... In tennis there’s been nothing done towards these athletes representing these countries. In the end, we stopped trying because it was just impossible to convince them to change their minds. Elina Svitolina
The current Ukrainian No 1 captured her first WTA 125 title at the Open BLS de Limoges in France with a three-set victory over Denmark’s Clara Tauson in the final, 6-3 5-7 6-4.
Meanwhile, the former Ukrainian No 1, Elina Svitolina, is hitting the gym after an 8 month hiatus from the WTA Tour initially due to her mental anguish over the invasion of her homeland, and then on maternity leave.
Having given birth to a baby girl in October, she is now fit again and is raring to return to match play in the upcoming season.
The former World No 3 is fearful, though, that people are forgetting about her compatriots, almost 10 months into Russia’s ongoing invasion that has reduced cities to rubble.
One of Ukraine’s most celebrated athletes, Svitolina continues to fundrais for the supply of electricity generators to Ukrainian hospitals as the invasion continues into the bitter winter months.
“We’re here to do everything to tell people, to introduce them [to] what is really happening in Ukraine, because a lot of people come to me and ask, ‘Is there still a war?’ And this is really painful to hear,” she told Reuters last week.
Her efforts have already raised more than $1.8 million for the online donation platform UNITED 24, a hub for charitable giving launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
With Moscow stating there will be no ‘Christmas ceasefire’, tens of thousands of people already have died while millions have been displaced, and those who stayed are without basic amenities such as power, heat and water in bitter winter conditions.
For Svitolina, who skyrocketed to popularity at home when she became the first Ukrainian to reach a major semi-final at Wimbledon in 2019, the matter is deeply personal as she has family in Odesa.
“They are also struggling without the electricity right now for a couple of days,” said the 28-year-old, who is married to French tennis player Gael Monfils. “And it’s been a quite, quite challenging nine months for them, and it’s not getting better.”
Athletes from Russia and Belarus are banned from much of the sporting world following the invasion in February, but the ATP and WTA Tours elected to allow players from those countries to continue competing.
“In tennis there’s been nothing done towards these athletes representing these countries,” said Svitolina, who added that she and her compatriots had had ‘multiple conversations’ with both the ATP and the WTA about the war. “In the end, we stopped trying because it was just impossible to convince them to change their minds.”
The ATP fined the LTA $1 million for banning male players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s UK summer grass court season, months after the WTA slapped Wimbledon organisers and British tennis authorities with similar fines.
The ATP maintains that a ‘unilateral decision’ by members to exclude players from the two countries sets a potentially dangerous precedent, while the WTA says that individual athletes should not be prevented from competing due to their country of origin.
“Of course other tournaments will not do the same thing because they’re scared of the sanctions,” added Svitolina, who won the WTA Finals in 2018. “England [has] always been a huge help to Ukrainian people and it’s very sad to see this move.”
Back in France, 25-year old Kalinina did not drop a set en route to the final, taking out top seed Zhang Shuai from China, 6-3 6-1, in the quarter-finals, and then posting her first win in 6 meetings over Russia’s Anna Blinkova, the 9th seed, 7-5 6-4, in the semi-finals.
The win brings a strong conclusion to Kalinina’s season, who was forced to withdraw from the US Open and several of the following tournaments due to a stomach virus.
“I basically spent September in bed,” she said.
In a battle between two big hitters, Tauson held the early edge, winning a pair of multi-deuce tussles to move up 3-1, but Kalinina roared through the rest of the first set, rattling off 16 out of the next 21 points for a dominant 5-game run.
Both settled into an impressive rhythm on serve and the second set saw no break points until the final game, when Kalinina became a touch tentative and Tauson took full advantage, converting her first set point as her opponent’s forehand sailed long.
A three-break run in the middle of the third proved decisive in the home stretch as Kalinina struck some of her most breathtaking forehands of the match to go up 3-2, only to hand the break straight back thanks to a slew of cheap errors and a double-fault.
Tauson then repaid her in kind, sending a forehand long to go down 4-3 and, this time, Kalinina held on to her lead, closing out the win with an authoritative love hold.
Kalinina already had one tour-level final under her belt, at Budapest in 2021, and, this year, she reached her first 3 quarter-finals at WTA 500 level or above, in Charleston, Madrid and Eastbourne.
“I wanted to play a full WTA calendar, because before I was mixing or playing mostly ITFs,” she said. “And this year almost every tournament I played was WTA.
“The main goal was to test myself at that level, to see how I could play against all the top players. I didn’t play all of them, but a lot of them. And I think it was pretty amazing.”
The doubles competition also ended in victory for Ukraine as Marta Kostyuk teamed up with Georgia’s Oksana Kalashnikova to defeat the British duo of Alicia Barnett & Olivia Nicholls, 7-5 6-1, in the final.
No 1 seeds Kalashnikova & Kostyuk had played together just once before, recording a 1st-round loss in Cluj-Napoca two months ago.
While Kalashnikova is a 5-time WTA doubles champion and adds a third WTA 125 title to her resumé, Kostyuk, who collected her first WTA doubles crown in Portoroz with Tereza Martincova this September, to which she now add a first WTA 125 title.
Elsewhere, President Zelenskyy had his request to broadcast a message at the FIFA World Cup final denied by football’s world governing body, according to CNN.
“We thought FIFA wanted to use its platform for the greater good,” said a source from the President’s office.
Zelenskyy virtually attended the G20 Summit last month in Bali, and held talks with IOC President Thomas Bach last week as he continues to seek support and condemnation of Russia.
The Ukrainian President said that he was ‘upset’ with the IOC’s openness to allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete neutrally at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, saying this should not be allowed until after the war has ended.
He added that ‘as long as Russia destroys peaceful life – only isolation’, urging that the IOC contribute towards the rebuilding of sports facilities destroyed during the war.
Earlier in the month, Bach told the IOC Executive Board that it had to find ways to overcome the ‘dilemma’ of Russian and Belarusian athletes’ participation at Paris 2024.
While the IOC recommends they are banned from international competition at present, it is exploring a proposal whereby they could compete in Olympic Council of Asia qualifiers.
Russia’s team were expelled from qualifying for the men’s World Cup because of the war, but military ally Belarus can still take part in FIFA and UEFA competitions.
Meanwhile, Sir Andy Murray has won the 2022 Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for donating his prize money to Ukraine, which amounted to £630,000 in total.
“Shortly after I decided that from Indian Wells onwards, I would donate my prize money for the rest of the season to UNICEF’s humanitarian response – the final total was just over £630,000,” Murray wrote in an essay for ATPTour.com last Thursday. “It seemed like something that would give me some extra motivation this year.
“There are 7.5 million children in Ukraine and after more than nine months of increased conflict, 5.2 million of them are in need of assistance.
“UNICEF is working around the clock to keep children safe by ensuring child health and protection services are sustained, critical supplies are delivered to families and that children have clean water and nutritious food.
“When you see images of children on the news who were impacted by things like this, that makes it even more difficult to stomach.
“I have four young children who are really fortunate that everything is fine with them. But being a parent, it affects you differently.
“You try to put yourself in their shoes. If something like that happened with your own family, how difficult would that be? It is hard to fathom.
“I’m in the fortunate position to try to make some sort of difference, so hopefully the money that’s been raised through UNICEF can help some of the children who have been affected.
“I think in situations like these it is important to be empathetic and do what you can to help others.
“When I was younger, in my early 20s, I didn’t really think about anything else except my tennis. As you start to get older and maybe mature a little bit, you realise there are things that are more important than sport.”