London | Swiatek and Svitolina join criticism over lack of leadership in tennis over Ukraine

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine continues to divide opinion in the tennis world, now fuelled by Wimbledon and the LTA’s decision last week to allow players from both Russia and Belarus to compete in the UK for the grass court season after having banned them in 2022.

"I heard that after World War Two, German players were not allowed as well as Japanese and Italian, and I feel like this kind of thing would show the Russian government that maybe it's not worth it... This is something that was considered at the beginning, tennis didn't really go that way, but now it would be pretty unfair for Russian and Belarusian players to do that because this decision was supposed to be made a year ago." Iga Świątek

World No 1 Iga Swiatek, who has done her best to support Ukraine through fundraising and awareness, has now stated that tennis could have done better ‘from the beginning’ over the unfortunate situation, and that a full ban on Russian and Belarusian players by the tennis authorities would have sent a strong message.

“I heard that after World War Two, German players were not allowed as well as Japanese and Italian, and I feel like this kind of thing would show the Russian government that maybe it’s not worth it,” the 21-year-old Swiatek told the BBC. “I know it’s a small thing because we are just athletes, a little piece in the world, but I feel, like, sport is pretty important, and sport has always been used in propaganda.

“This is something that was considered at the beginning, tennis didn’t really go that way, but now it would be pretty unfair for Russian and Belarusian players to do that because this decision was supposed to be made a year ago.”

Swiatek has players approaching her for help and advice on the issue, adding that the ‘lack of leadership’ from both the WTA and ATP after the war started has left tennis in a ‘chaotic place’.

“I feel, like, tennis, from the beginning, could do a bit better in showing everybody that tennis players are against the war,” added Swiatek.

“I feel they could do more to make that point, and tell their views, and help us cope a bit better in the locker room, because the atmosphere there is pretty tense.”

Of the Russian and Belarusian players on the tour, Swiatek said: “It’s not their fault they have a passport like that but, on the other hand, we all have some kind of impact and I feel, like, anything that would help stop the Russian aggression, we should go that way in terms of the decisions the federations are making.

“It’s easy to say that, but, when you’re facing people face-to-face, it’s a little bit different.

“I did shake hands, for example, with Daria Kasatkina – she openly said that she’s against the war at the beginning, and it would be her dream for the war to finish.

“I really respect that because I feel it’s brave for Russian athletes to say that, because their situation is pretty complicated, and, sometimes, it’s hard for them to speak out loud about it.”

Russian and Belarusian players have been competing on the tours and at the 3 other Grand Slams since the invasion as neutral athletes.

Alexandr Dolgopolov, who swapped his racket for a military uniform, praised Iga Swiatek for speaking out on behalf of Ukraine

© Julian Finney/Getty Images

Swiatek’s remarks earned praise from Alexandr Dolgopolov, the former Ukrainian player who is now serving in the military, for her unwavering support.

The Ukrainian also emphasised the need for Russian and Belarusian players to be banned from playing until their governments take action to stop the ongoing war and provide aid to those affected by it.

“As usual @iga_swiatek speaking truth. Not only were they excluded after ww2, but also look how the USSR viewed the blame for the war. Yes, for russia it’s a sensitive matter, their sports. Until they are ready to support us and fight against evil openly, they shouldn’t play,” Dolgopolov tweeted.

Although former World No 3 Elina Svitolina, also from Ukraine, respects Wimbledon’s decision to lift the ban on Russians and Belarusians at this year’s event, the Olympic bronze medallist is critical of the WTA for its lack of action in helping the country’s tennis players, especially after the incident with Lesia Tsurenko last month.

Tsurenko withdrew from her match against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus at Indian Wells because she suffered a panic attack following a talk with WTA Chief Executive Steve Simon.

Simon is said to have told the Ukrainian that, if Russian and Belarusian players support the war, then that is ‘only their opinion’ which should not upset her.

Sabalenka, now the World No 2, has claimed that players receive ‘hate’ in the locker room, despite not openly supporting the invasion, and added that the WTA is doing all it can to support Ukrainians, something that Svitolina disagrees with.

“We are afraid, we feel empty,” Svitolina told L’Equipe. “What is happening to Lesia is very sad.

“People who haven’t experienced it can’t really understand what it feels like to have no home, to feel safe nowhere, to have family in Ukraine, under the bombs, to know that Ukrainian cities are being destroyed.

“It’s both fear and a great emptiness.

“The WTA should have done more, much more, on many issues. Now it’s too late,” continued Svitolina, who came back on the tour at the Charleston Open this week after a maternity break

“There have been a lot of press releases, a lot of interviews. It was useless.”

Marta Kostyuk has set up a charitable foundation to provide aid for Ukraine, emulating her compatriots Elina Svitolina and Dayana Yastremska who have done the same

© Christopher Pike/Getty Images

The WTA has stated it has ‘consistently reflected full support for Ukraine’, and just last week, the IOC Executive Board recommended that individual Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed to re-enter competition, if they are not openly in support of the invasion of Ukraine or affiliated to the military, citing tennis as a leading example.

Along with the ATP, the WTA has welcomed the Wimbledon organisers’ decision to lift the ban on Russian and Belarusian players last Friday, allowing them to compete in the grass court Grand Slam this year as ‘neutral’ athletes.

Last week, Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk said IOC President Thomas Bach was wrong to argue that Russian and Belarus athletes can return to international competitions because they already compete without friction in some sports, such as tennis.

Asked what her reaction would be if they are allowed to take part in next year’s Olympics in Paris, Svitolina said: “I don’t think about it. It’s up to the Olympic Committee and the Ukrainian Committee to think about it and do their job! My job, as a player, is to get ready.”

Meanwhile, Kostyuk, who has been helping to raise funds for the purchase of vehicles and drones for the Armed Forces in Ukraine, has joined Svitolina and Dayana Yastremska in establishing her own charitable foundation, with Tsurenko becoming a co-founder together with Dolgopolov and kickboxer Pavel Zhuravlev.

Their efforts continue, and, ahead of the ongoing WTA 500 event in Charleston, Svitolina organised a ‘Tennis Plays for Peace Pro-Am’ in support of Ukraine, which raised over $100,000 for Tennis Plays for Peace.

She recalled her recent trip to Ukraine, saying: “It was a tough trip for me but, at the same time, I was the happiest person to see my grandmother, and the other half of my family as well.

“It’s really tough to see my homeland in a state of alert constantly. I went to some cities, completely destroyed by missiles. It was a heartbreaking moment for me.

“That’s why I tried my best to raise money for Ukrainian people, and for rebuilding Ukraine.”



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