London | Ukrainian war issues deepen as players talk to the WTA

Elina Svitolina and several other Ukrainian players have had an online meeting with the WTA to discuss the organisation’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

If the Russians and Belarusians on the tour support or justify military aggression in the same way as [Anastasia] Gasanova, it means that they wish Ukrainians, our relatives, our friends and ultimately us to be dead. Is it the norm for the 21st century to stay in the same environment with such people? We are waiting for answers from WTA. Elina Svitolina

Amongst the issues raised was the matter of Russia’s Anastasia Gasanova, who had posted a video and several stories on Instagram referring directly to military actions in Ukraine, claiming Russia had occupied Donetsk, but was not sanctioned by the WTA in any way.

Last year, the Russian decided to tell her side of the story, writing: “Hello everyone. I resisted for a long time, but the time has come to tell my story.

“In 2013 I arrived in the city of Odessa, in the south of Ukraine, and this was my training base. My whole team was from Odessa, that is, they were Ukrainians.

“At that time, my sponsor was also Ukrainian. Everything went well until 2014, when there was a coup by Ukraine. An armed coup, not like what they tell. It is now fashionable to say that Ukraine has managed to bring down the regime through anti-government demonstrations.

“May 2, 2014 represented a before and after in my life. We were forced to leave Ukraine. At that time I was wearing the uniform of the Russian national team and until May 2nd people were very friendly, people love Russia there.

“From 2 May, however, it was impossible to wear that uniform, because they could have shot me. Without a place to train and without a team, my growth path has slowed down. In 2015 I found a club in Ryazan (Russia). Only my coach remained with me, so we built everything from scratch.

“Russia, as many say, has occupied Donetsk. Too bad that for some reason the people of Donetsk come to Russia to work. Why haven’t they shared anything in these 8 years? Because it was not in fashion. Do you know what the reaction of Donetsk residents was when the President of the Russian Federation announced a special operation? Tears of happiness.”

Gasanova also wrote about the explosion of the Crimean bridge, writing: “Did anyone care whether or not there were civilians during the explosion of the Bridge? When civilians die in Ukraine from the bombings it is a tragedy; if it happens in Russia, however. Is my position clear now? Thanks for your attention.”

Amongst the issues raised, Svitolina asked the WTA why Gasanova was allowed to continue competing after such political remarks.


Lesia Tsurenko claims there was simply no answer to her questions from the WTA

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

According to the post on Twitter, taking part in the online meeting were Ukrainian players Marta Kostvuk, Lesia Tsurenko and Svitolina, while the WTA was represented by Steve Simon (WTA Chairman and CEO), Vanessa Webb (Council Chair; 1-100+ Singles and Doubles-Only Representative), Ania Vreg (Top 20 Singles Representative), Kristie Ahn (21-100+ Singles and Doubles-Only Representative), Brandon Burke (Player Alternate Representative), and WTA Player Council member Sloane Stephens.

Kostyuk, Tsurenko and Svitolina wrote a subsequent record of the meeting, posting it on Friday, and stating:

“Many issues were discussed at the meeting regarding violations of the rights of Ukrainians, lack of actions by WTA on propaganda and support of military aggression against Ukraine on the tour, prevention of unethical behavior on the part of WTA employees, and many other urgent issues.

“We received short comments from Ukrainian tennis players based on the reasons of this meeting.

Lesia Tsurenko stated: “Right now I don’t want to tell much about everything that happened at that meeting because a lot of issues were raised and a lot of questions were asked.

“We have drafted a letter to the WTA following this meeting and we expect a quick response with a precise view from the tour as to how exactly we will fix this situation.

“What impressed me the most, and the girls as well, I think, were the answers from the WTA representatives. I was very interested and I’m still interested in the issue of discrimination against the Ukrainian players.

“Throughout entire Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, we constantly hear about the prevention of discrimination against Russian and Belarusian players, about preserving their rights and freedoms, about support from the tours and about all-around protection – as the policy of the WTA.

“And what about the Ukrainians?

“I asked everyone present – what have you done, are doing and plan to do to prevent discrimination against the Ukrainians? To protect the universal human rights of the players from Ukraine? To preserve our basic right to do our work in peace? What has the WTA done to maintain a peaceful environment on tour during these extremely challenging times?

“There was simply no answer to my questions.

“At first, even thought that, maybe, the internet connection was bad, so not everyone could hear me entirely or partly, so I repeated my questions once more. But nothing changed… There was simply no answer. None of those present said a word

“It was a shock.

“We once again were convinced that no one had thought about Ukrainian players at all, does not think and not intend to think about it.”


Marta Kostyuk joined the online meeting with WTA from a car in Kyiv during a Russian drone attack

© Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Marta Kostvuk added: “At the time of our meting I was in Kyiv. The war continues in my homeland and help at this time is extremely important. I was in a car. I was listening carefully to everything that was happening at the meeting. When it was my turn to speak, suddenly the air alarm went off because Kyiv was under attack of drones.

“I asked a simple question – are we Ukrainians on equal terms with Russian and Belarusian women? We can’t be safe at home for even one day. The training bases were bombed. Our country is bombed every day. We do not have transport links with other countries. Every morning starts with checking whether someone from relatives of acquaintances has been killed. Mentally, we are under constant stress. And at the specific moment when I asked the question, I was in mortal danger.

“And in these conditions, we have to compete with the representatives of the aggressor countries, because the WTA decided not to ban them. Ukrainians are in such conditions because of what Russia and Belarus are doing. In other words, these countries with their actions knowingly created an advantage for their athletes over Ukrainian athletes.

“No one answered my question… repeated it again and again and again…

“Until we heard back from Sloane Stephens. She said that she doesn’t quite understand what exactly I mean – on equal terms – but the Players Council is ready to help Ukrainians, and they would like to know what can be done for us.

“I’d like to note that the communication with the representatives of the Players Council took place for the first time since the beginning of the war. Until this conversation, no one was interested in what can be and should be done to help Ukrainians, who suffer because of the war.”

Elina Svitolina concluded: “After Lesia Tsurenko’s conversation with Steve Simon, the question of approval of the Russian military aggression inside the tennis world gained a huge backlash, and we simply had to figure out whether it is the real view of the WTA.

“We have a very vivid example of how, after months of murdering, looting, raping, kidnapping Ukrainians and seizing our territory, Anastasia Gasanova still decided to promote all of this on her Instagram page by repeating Russia’s propaganda narratives about the war to justify the decision behind the invasion and all these crimes Russia commit on Ukrainian people.

“My questions were, is this even normal, is it fine for the WTA that such a person stays on the tour? Is it fair towards the Ukrainian women and all other participants of the tour? In response, we heard the same answer as for Lesia’s and Marta’s questions – silence.

“No arguments. No explanation. We will not leave this issue behind, because it is logically connected with the safety issue of Ukrainian women.

“If the Russians and Belarusians on the tour support or justify military aggression in the same way as Gasanova, it means that they wish Ukrainians, our relatives, our friends and ultimately us to be dead.

“Is it the norm for the 21st century to stay in the same environment with such people? We are waiting for answers from WTA.”


Dayana Yastremska and her sister Ivanna had to flee Ukraine because of the war last year

© Robert Prange/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the IOC has pledged to provide Olympic Solidarity funding to any Ukrainian athlete affected by their National Olympic Committee’s proposal to ban them from international competitions in which Russian and Belarusian athletes are taking part.

The IOC also said the Ukrainian Government’s preparations to strip its national sports federations of status and funding if any of their athletes compete in international events involving Russians or Belarusians would ‘hurt only the Ukraine athletic community’.

The IOC’s position was signalled through amendments to its online Q&A section.

The latest offer of Olympic Solidarity funding was made after the Ukrainian Tennis Federation appealed to its NOC over the possible ban on its players competing in events where Russian athletes were taking part.

“The Ukrainian Tennis Federation said in a statement: ‘With this appeal, we express a common position regarding the possible decision of the NOC on a complete boycott by the players of all international tournaments where Russians or Belarusians play,” the IOC answer read.

“Such a decision will lead to the destruction of Ukrainian tennis, because players from these countries take part in almost every competition, and will become a sanction not against the Russians, but against the Ukrainians.

“ ‘If Russians and Belarusians are allowed to compete, you need to play with them and win, and not avoid the battle’.

“The IOC has always followed and will also follow in this case its policy to protect the athletes.

“Therefore, if this was implemented, the athletes who want to compete and would lose the support of their National Sports Federation and their National Olympic Committee because of Government interference, could count on the direct support of the Olympic Movement’s Solidarity Fund for the Olympic community of Ukraine and the athletes’ support programmes of the IOC.”

Ukrainian Sports Minister and NOC President Vadym Gutzeit cast doubt last month on the IOC’s claim that its Solidarity Fund has benefited approximately 3,000 athletes and coaches from the country.

The IOC professed its Solidarity Fund totalling $7.5 million (£6.2 million/€7 million) is being used to allow Ukrainian athletes to continue training and competing at major events.

Gutzeit said that about $1.5 million (£1.2 million/€1.4 million) to $2 million (£1.7 million/€1.9 million) was provided to the federation and to the athletes who are preparing, adding: “It is difficult to say that this is the support of 3,000 athletes, because it is not enough.”

Ukraine’s Sports Ministry has also announced that a draft resolution has been drawn up over the sanctioning of its National Federations in the event that they compete against Russian and Belarusian opposition.

“This raises serious questions about the autonomy of Ukrainian sport,” the IOC said in its answer to a question on this topic. “If implemented, such a decision would a) hurt only the Ukrainian athlete community and the National Sports Federations, and in no way impact the war that the world wants to stop, and that the IOC has so vehemently condemned.

“The IOC has always maintained that it is not up to Governments to decide which athletes can participate in which international competitions.

“If implemented, such a decision would b) also go against the position of a number of Ukrainian athletes and other members of the Ukrainian Olympic community.”


Iga Swiatek continues to speak out about the lack of leadership from the WTA and ATP to help ease growing tension between Ukrainian players and those from Russia and Belarus

© Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Elsewhere, Russia’s retired two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova came to the defence of her fellow compatriots, after Petra Kvitova, from the Czech Republic, criticised the participation of Russians and Belarusians in the upcoming Wimbledon Championships and the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It is clear that the Czechs are very opposed to the Russian people,” the 37-year old wrote in an online article. “There is now propaganda and Russophobia all over the world. However, I believe that athletes should not get involved in this. They just have to play tennis.

“I understand if politicians play tennis, but ATP and WTA try to keep this sport away from politics. And if we start this topic, let’s talk about all the wars that have taken place for almost the whole modern period in various countries and their consequences for sport.” Kuznetsova added.

“Tennis players don’t even understand politics – I don’t understand, colleagues from the national team don’t understand. Why connect them with this?”

While Kuznetsova’s remarks may hold true for some, recent actions by some Russian players suggest otherwise, with Anastasia Potapova, as an example, wearing a Spartak Moscow shirt during a match against Jessica Pegula at Indian Wells, which many interpreted as a provocation.

World No 1 Iga Swiatek has since stepped in to clarify her previous remarks in an interview with Wprost.

“Is not about politics, but about people’s suffering” The Pole said. “And that is why I decided to speak out.

“As a Pole, from the beginning of the war in Ukraine, I was emotional about this issue. For me, it is important that we – athletes, public figures – have an impact on society.

“Our views shape others, and this can trigger change,” she added. “I have the impression that all these elements, plus the fact that, after all, Russian and Belarusian athletes are, in a sense, not responsible for the actions of politicians from their countries, makes for a certain dissonance. And a moral conundrum.

“Actually, after every defeat, a lot of hate is poured. Once there was so little of it that, I realised that there were more positive comments. But since my popularity and sports level have increased, the percentage of people who negatively evaluate me has also increased,” Iga Swiatek concluded.

Swiatek thinks the WTA should have done more to ease the tension between Ukrainian and Russian and Belarusian players, which has been increasing since the war began.

“First of all, the tensions in the locker room,” she said. “The players did not quite know how to manoeuvre this whole conflict.

“This was also due to the fact that there was no leadership that would make both sides feel heard, and some players would understand that they cannot, for example, represent their country or show that they support Russian teams, as happened recently.

“More than a year has passed since the start of the war, and, in tennis, we are not fully operating in such a way as to ease tensions. They are rather fuelled by the fact that there are no people who would efficiently manage the situation.

“If they were, it would be a little easier to function in an environment where people from different countries meet, with different views, and, above all, Russian and Ukrainian women meet,” Swiatek concluded.


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