London | The rip-tide that is Ukraine 

The situation in Ukraine continues to cause waves in the tennis world, with some indiscretions prompting backlashes and concerns over the decision to be made by Wimbledon and the LTA rising to fever pitch in other quarters.

How can we further understand that our organisation [the WTA] somehow protects our rights? I just don't understand how it happened in this world that such things need to be explained, it is very strange and very painful... We [Ukrainian players] also want to raise the question [with the WTA Board] of how a person like Steve Simon can be a leader in the WTA and what should we do about it. Lesia Tsurenko

Last week at Indian Wells, Russia’s Anastasia Potapova showed up on court wearing a Spartak Moscow soccer shirt in apparent public support for her country’s Premier League team during its invasion of Ukraine, prompting Iga Swiatek, the World No 1, to criticise the player for her lack of good judgement.

“To be honest, I was surprised,” Poland’s Swiatek told the media. “I thought the player realised that she should not, even if she is a fan of the team, show her views in this way at such times.”

Swiatek has openly condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since the war, which Moscow calls a ‘special military operation’, started in February last year, while she actively engaged in promoting support for Ukrainians.

The 21-year old Pole then raised the matter of the shirt incident with the WTA.

“I’ve talked to the WTA and, in a way, I found out that there should be less such situations because they will explain to other players that you can’t promote any Russian teams these days, which reassured me a bit,” she said. “On the other hand, I think these situations, unfortunately, happen because this announcement should have taken place much earlier.

“There was a lot of chaos in the locker room at the beginning of the war. It was not clear how to approach everything, which causes such unpleasant situations.

“I think if there had been better leadership from the beginning, maybe we would have avoided such situations.”

When asked about the shirt, Potapova said after her 3-set loss to World No 3 Jessica Pegula, that she had supported Spartak since she was 13 and saw no provocation in it.

The WTA subsequently issued a warning to Potapova, stating: “Regarding the Russian soccer team shirt, the WTA has formally warned the player that this was not acceptable nor an appropriate action. We do not expect to see any reoccurrence of this in the future.”

Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko, seen here at Eastbourne last year, pulled out of her match with Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus due to a panic attack in Indian Wells

© Steve Bardens/Getty Images

The WTA came under more fire when Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko withdrew from her match with Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka at Indian Wells due to what she later called a panic attack.

Tsurenko said this was triggered by a chat she had with WTA Chief Executive Steve Simon about tennis’s response to Russia’s invasion, for which Belarus has been a key staging ground, and the continued presence of Russian and Belarusian players competing on both the women’s and men’s tours as individual athletes without national affiliation.

“Officially, it will be written as ‘personal reasons’, but, in fact, it was breathing problems and, one might say, hysteria,” she admitted. “I was absolutely shocked by what I heard, I just broke down mentally.”

The 33-year-old Tsurenko offered a full explanation to the Great Tennis Ukraine website after pulling out of the top-ranked WTA 1000 event in California.

“A few days ago, I had a conversation with our WTA CEO Steve Simon, and I was absolutely shocked by what I heard,” she said. “He told me that he himself does not support the war, but if the players from Russia and Belarus support it, then this is only their own opinion, and the opinion of other people should not upset me.”

Russian and Belarus players have been permitted to take part in men’s and women’s tour events but without identification of nationality.

“He expressed confidence that the Russians and Belarusians will return to the Olympics, and said that this will happen exactly as it is happening now in tennis,” Tsurenko continued.

“He also said that ‘fair play’ and Olympic principles were not violated, but, on the contrary, the very fact that they will perform at the Olympics will show that these principles work, that everyone is equal and everyone has the opportunity to perform there.”

In the past year, Tsurenko has pulled out of 9 tournaments either before or during matches.

“It was difficult to gather myself and, today, when it was time to go to the court, I had a panic attack and I just couldn’t go out there,” Tsurenko explained. “I really hope that I will be able to digest all this information and be more ready for the next tournament.”

Tsurenko added that the conversation had caused her and other Ukrainian players to question Simon’s position, and they had asked for a conference call with the WTA Board of Directors to ask them to replicate the support offered to Ukrainian players at the Australian Open in January.

“In fact, he made it clear that there would be no help, as there had been none all year,” said Tsurenko.

“How can we further understand that our organisation somehow protects our rights? I just don’t understand how it happened in this world that such things need to be explained, it is very strange and very painful.”

Tsurenko and other Ukrainian players also want ‘to raise the question of how a person like Steve Simon can be a leader in the WTA and what should we do about it’.

WTA CEO Steve Simon, seen here presenting Iga Swiatek of Poland with the 2022 WTA Player of the Year award at the 2023 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, is under fire over Ukraine fall-out

© Robert Prange/Getty Images

The WTA responded to Tsurenko’s comments with a statement on Monday: “First and foremost, we acknowledge the emotions Lesia and all of our Ukrainian athletes have and continue to manage during this very difficult period of time,” the statement read.

“We are witnessing an ongoing horrific war that continues to bring unforeseen circumstances with far reaching consequences that are affecting the world, as well as the global WTA Tour and its members.

“The WTA has consistently reflected our full support for Ukraine and strongly condemn the actions that have been brought forth by the Russian Government.

“With this, a fundamental principle of the WTA remains, which is ensuring that individual athletes may participate in professional tennis events based on merit and without any form of discrimination, and not penalized due to the decisions made by the leadership of their country.”

The incident sparked a reaction from retired Ukrainian player Alexandr Dolgopolov, who expressed his dissent of Simon’s comments which had intimidated Tsurenko, posting on Twitter: “Steve Simon, @WTA CEO to @LTsurenko: ‘I don’t support the war, but it’s OK if players support it’. Steve, instead of intimidating Ukrainian women, be a man and take this to the public. Conversation happened with you on duty, people deserve to know, it’s OK, to support genocide.”

Simon, the WTA chief, has since said his organisation is supporting Ukrainian players and told BBC Sport: “We continue to do as much as we have the ability to do. We have done a lot for our athletes, I know there’s a variety of opinions on that out there.

“What’s going on in Ukraine is reprehensible. You can’t support it any way – nor what the Russian government is doing.”

Andy Murray is sympathetic towards the difficult decision Wimbledon has to make in the coming weeks, but supports either way

© Julian Finney/Getty Images

The All England Club and the LTA apparently are currently finalising plans that will allow these players to compete on the grass this summer, and the IOC has signalled its desire to help Russian athletes compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“Our sympathies are at the highest level with everybody in Ukraine, and I don’t think any of us can properly understand what they are going through,” Simon said. “I don’t think that any of this is lessening what’s going on over there.

“We continue to speak with [Russian and Belarusian players] and make sure they understand about the sensitivities here and that they are competing as neutral athletes. I think there is a strong understanding on that.

“We’ve always had the position – and it’s been a fundamental position of the tour – that every player that is eligible should be allowed to play. And this is irrespective to decisions that may have been made by local governments.

“We’ve been consistent with that, and we are going to stay consistent with that. We think that the neutral approach is appropriate.”

Multiple reports indicate that, due to the pressure from the tours, players from Russia and Belarus will no longer be banned from Wimbledon because of the Ukrainian war, so Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachenov, Aryna Sabalenka and Vika Azarenka will all be eligible to play Wimbledon this year.

Andy Murray commented to the BBC: “It’s a really difficult one and I do feel for the players who weren’t able to play last year, but I also understand the situation and why it’s really hard for Wimbledon to make a call on it as well.

“My understanding is that they are going to be allowed to play and I’m not going to be going nuts if that is the case. But if Wimbledon went down another route I would be understanding of that.”

Former Ukrainian No 1 Elina Svitolina says she is very sad if the Wimbledon organisers have indeed decided to allow Russian players to return to The Championships in 2023.

“It’s not supposed to be like this in my opinion, what Wimbledon did last year [banning players from Russia and Belarus] was the right decision,” she told Mike Dickson of The Daily Mail. “If that has been changed this year it’s very sad because the war is still terrible, the Russian army is still killing a lot of innocent people. It is not fair play.”

As a result of the ban last year, the LTA was fined by the WTA and ATP, and the AELTC by the WTA, while the Grand Slam was also stripped of its ranking status.

This year, the LTA reportedly has been threatened by both Tours with losing its pre-Wimbledon tournaments, including the Queen’s Club Championships and Birmingham Classic, if the ban persists.

Confirmation of the decision is expected next month.

Latvia's Jelena Ostapenko has also felt a consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine when her government threatened to withdraw support

© Harry How/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Oleg Prikhodko, 25-year-old ranked 121 on the ATP doubles rankings who usually competes with Russia’s Yan Bondarevsky, has said that banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sport only makes the conflict worse.

“I played a couple with the Russian, because he is my friend,” Prikhodko told BTU. “For me, nationality does not matter. In my opinion, a person should be judged for his actions, not by his nationality.

“In general, I believe that such condemnation of athletes only fuels the conflict more. Thus, athletes begin to make war on and off the court, turning into instruments of war, and forgetting the basic principle of sport.”

Prikohdko then went on to say that he has been ridiculed for not identifying himself as Ukrainian on his Instagram page, and his relationship with the Tennis Federation of Ukraine has also declined as a result of his stance.

The Ukranian also believes that Russia and Belarus should be allowed to compete at the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“I, as an athlete, do not understand this,” he explained. “I understand that, for all the guys, this is a dream that they have been going to all their lives. I believe that sport should unite people.

“In ancient times, when the Olympics were held, all wars stopped, and now it is part of the war. I believe that athletes should be given a chance to realise themselves. For most, this is the only Olympics in their lives.

“I just put myself in their shoes, and I wouldn’t want to be removed from the most important event in my life that I’ve been going to all my life.”

Elsewhere, Jelena Ostapenko’s Latvian government funding has been reinstated after it was withheld because she and other athletes, including cyclists Tomas Skujinas and Kristas Neilands, compete in commercial competitions that endorse the participation of players from Russia and Belarus.

“The WTA organises these tournaments and I don’t have the opportunity to play elsewhere,” Ostapenko reacted. “Basically, it means that I cannot play in any tournament. I have to quit tennis. I will not do that because I am a tennis player and this is my sport. Unfortunately, that is the reality.”

The strong public backlash and from the athletes, however, has forced the government to backtrack and withdraw the suspension.



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