New York | Is ‘Tennis Plays for Peace’ enough to help Ukraine?

Professional tennis has not altered its stance since the invasion of Ukraine 6 months ago, other than Wimbledon, which made a stand by excluding Russian and Belarusian players from The Championships, and was met with a mixed reception, even a hostile one by some.

We can show solidarity with Ukraine and be kind to ourselves and others because we are stronger together. Stay safe and strong. Iga Świątek

In response to the war, the ATP, WTA, ITF and the Grand Slams determined that Russian and Belarusian players could still compete on tour but could not so under their country name or flag, a move that has had little influence on world current affairs.

Tennis tournaments in both countries lost their sanctions, while their national teams were excluded from the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean Cup competitions, as well as other lesser team events.

While there have been some statements from players about the atrocities resulting from the unprovoked war, there is also silence from many of those affected, presumably amidst fears of reprisals back home.

There have been contributions and fund-raisers to aid to stricken Ukraine, its citizens and especially the children displaced by the war, that continues unabated.

Behind the scenes, matters got ugly when Wimbledon and the LTA followed government advice to not accept entries from Russian and Belarusian players for the grass court season in the UK, and subsequently got fined $1 million between them by the WTA for ‘discrimination’.

Failing to recognise that by removing the propaganda opportunity from the Kremlin, a very public statement made to President Vladimir Putin, both the WTA and ATP also stripped Wimbledon of rankings points, which hurt those players who participated, while the ITF pettily followed suit by removing its points from the junior events.

The result is out-of-whack ranking lists for both tours.

The US Open toyed with the notion of following Wimbledon’s ban, but opted to leave the last major of the year open to all, well, mostly all, since Novak Djokovic and any other unvaccinated-for-COVID foreign player cannot enter the USA under the current regulations.

USTA executives revealed there was ‘serious consideration’ of following Wimbledon’s stance in banning Russian and Belarusian players from the tournament, while supporters against a ban hoped that the US Open ‘could provide a significant opportunity for uniting players and organising the sport’s largest fund-raising effort to support Ukraine’.

As a result, there will be a nod to Ukraine, with a fund-raiser pencilled in to take place on Ukraine Independence Day, 24 August, at the Louis Armstrong Stadium in New York City, and among those set to join Rafael Nadal, Coco Gauff and Iga Świątek in the exhibition event is Belarusian Victoria Azarenka.

It is part of Tennis Plays for Peace, a programme seeking to raise awareness and humanitarian aid for Ukraine supported by the game’s governing bodies.

Joining them are American trio John McEnroe, Taylor Fritz and Jessica Pegula, Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, Canadian pair Leylah Fernandez and Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Italy’s Matteo Berrettini.

These players, plus others, will compete in a series of singles and mixed doubles matches in an event that Mike McNulty, the USTA President and Board Chair, has labelled a ‘vitally important’ campaign.

“The US Open is a stage that attracts millions of passionate fans, and it is incumbent upon us to help guide this passion to help those who desperately need it,” McNulty said.

Tickets are priced at $25 (£20.70/€24.50) and $50 (£41.30/€49) and all of the proceeds will go to GlobalGiving, the non-profit organisation being used by Tennis Plays for Peace.

The money will be used to support communities in Ukraine impacted by the Russian invasion, as well as the surrounding regions where millions of Ukrainian refugees have fled.

The US Open also has invited the Ukraine Chorus Dumka of New York to participate in the Grand Slam’s celebrations for opening night.

“I’m proud of the way in which our sport has rallied together to lend a much-needed hand to our friends in Ukraine,” McNulty said.

“I’m likewise proud that we are able to use the global platform of the US Open to enhance the giving effort, and I urge everyone to do all they can to help us show the people of Ukraine that we stand with them in their time of need.”

Since its launch in March, Tennis Plays for Peace, which counts on support from of all the sport’s governing bodies and 4 Grand Slam tournaments, has raised more than $1 million (£828,000/€981,000), while the USTA predicts it can generate at least $2 million (£1.7 million/€1.9 million) during the 3-week US Open.

This week, the United Nations recorded at least 5,514 civilian deaths in Ukraine and 7,689 injuries since the full-scale invasion began on 24 February, while it fears that the true figures are considerably higher.

World No 1 Iga Swiatek continues to sport the Ukrainian colours on her hat

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Poland’s World No 1 Iga Swiatek has been a champion of the Ukraine cause since the start: “We can show solidarity with Ukraine and be kind to ourselves and others because we are stronger together. Stay safe and strong,” she tweeted recently.

That life is complicated for so many, is clear as many fear to speak out.

Azarenka, who has been very vocal about the Wimbledon ban and championed the WTA’s stance against it, refused to comment on the US Open fundraising initiative for Ukraine last week, despite committing herself to the charity match.

The former World No 1 has enjoyed a good relationship with her country’s President, and Belarus has admitted to allowing Russia to stage part of their invasion of Ukraine from their territory.

The Belarusian two-time Grand Slam champion refused an interview with the New York Times to discuss the match, and the USTA’s wider fundraising efforts, despite US Open boss Stacey Allaster sharing the current World No 20’s willingness to participate.

“It was a quick response,” she said of her conversation with Azarenka, after calling the 33-year-old and asking her to play. “She said, ‘This is a player choice, and I want to play’.”

Azarenka is the first Russian or Belarusian player to commit to the exhibition, but it has yet to be seen whether she will take to the court for the event.

Earlier, Azarenka stated she mourned the ‘missed opportunity for unity’ with Wimbledon ban after defeating Ukraine’s Yastremska at the Citi Open in Washington.

She blamed ‘ignorance and carelessness’ for the absence of Russian and Belarusian athletes from this year’s Championships.

“I’m on the Player Council, so I can’t completely cut myself off,” she told after opting out of the grass court season. “I take that part of my job very seriously.

“I think what people missed here, was a big opportunity to show how sports can unite. I think we missed that opportunity, but I hope we can still show it.

“I love to find solutions from difficult situations. I think what was hard was the absolute ignorance and carelessness from the other parties.

“I think that was a tough part to digest, because you’re coming in with options, opportunities, and your heart, and it’s met with basically a ‘We don’t care’.

“But we all move on. It didn’t change my view and my perception when it comes to helping people, and it won’t. I don’t believe that part of me will ever go away, so we’ll just move on.”

Yastremska takes a different view: “If in other sports the Russian and Belarus are out of competitions, I think in tennis it has to be the same,” she has said.

Personally affected by the invasion, 22-year old Yastremska ultimately sought refuge in France with her mother and sister.

“More players are talking about why Russian and Belarusian players are out from the tournament than they talk about the Ukraine,” she added. “So it’s very tough to say what players are supporting to these athletes from Russia and Belarus to play at Wimbledon, or they support Ukraine.”

The woman named Lola was watching quietly in the stands draped in a Ukrainian flag deemed too large

Ben Rothenberg/TrashTennis

In Cincinnati, over the weekend, there was controversy when a woman with a Ukrainian flag draped around her shoulders was ejected from a qualifying match between two Russians players, Anna Kalinskaya who defeated Anastasia Potapova, 7-5 6-1.

One of the players complained about the woman in the stands, who had a flag and a Ukrainian floral wreath crown known as a vinok, and she was asked to leave the venue.

It comes as the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears its 6-month anniversary.

There have been protests and defiant acts by Ukrainian players in particular, but the incident in Cincinnati has shown the stark difference between how Wimbledon and the US Open lead-in tournaments are treating protests about the invasion.

The woman, who journalist Ben Rothenberg identified as a local resident named Lola, was silently watching the match when the incident happened.

Despite sitting there silently, the umpire Morgane Lara confronted Lola and said it was ‘not nice’ to sit with the flag, to which Lola replied that it is ‘not nice to invade a country’.

The fact was that she wasn’t doing anything wrong, or saying anything disruptive, and reportedly left of her own volition, only to be approached by the tournament’s head of security who told her flag was too big.

A tournament spokesman told Reuters: “Per the Western & Southern Open’s bag policy, as stated on the tournament’s website, flags or banners larger than 18 x 18 are prohibited.

“Therefore, the patron was asked to remove the flag from the grounds and after doing so was allowed to remain at the tournament.

“Any inquiries about the chair umpire should be directed to the WTA Tour.”

Needless to say, social media erupted with complaints and criticism over such pettiness, led by retired Ukrainian tennis pro Alexandr Dolgopolov, who wrote: “Our country is drowning in blood and barbaric violence, no Russian will bully a silent supporter wearing a Ukraine flag! Have some respect.

“P.s- keep the flags in the policy requirement, so they have no ‘fairy tale’ reason to ask you to leave.”

Japan Times correspondent Magdelena Osumi posted: “Support for Ukraine or Russia — where do WTA and ATP stand on Russia’s war on Ukraine?”

It’s a good question.

Former UK MP Paul Masterton wrote: “Solid effort from the tennis authorities here: kicking out a fan who was sitting quietly watching two Russian players because she was wearing a Ukraine flag, after one of the players (Potapova, of course it was…) complained.”

Unlikely to be the last protest of the US swing, another former Ukrainian player Sergiy Stakhovsky condemned the US Open decision to welcome Russian and Belarusians: “I salute Wimbledon, the only entity which has a moral code,” he said.

Ukraine's BJK Cup Captain Olga Savchuk feels stricter measures are needed to make Russian players uncomfortable about the invasion

© Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Olga Savchuk, captain of the Ukraine team at the Billie Jean Cup tie supports stricter measures.

“My strong position is, if there are sanctions, there have to be sanctions on everyone,” Savchuk told Time. “Russia has to be isolated.

“Look at our kids and our families. People dying. Women and children. Russian tennis players at least have to feel uncomfortable.”

“Sports can also help keep the war, and the suffering of the Ukrainian people, top of mind.

“I want people to know about the situation and not forget about it,” added Savchuk. “These days, in the news, it’s maybe a few weeks people talk about it, and feel sorry about it then people forget and get on with their lives. Which is normal. It’s very human. I get it.

“But I’m scared and I hope that we try to send a message and talk about our country and more and more people take time and actually investigate the situation.”

Her message for Putin: “Simple and straight, just leave our country. And look into the eyes of your own kids and your family and ask yourself, ‘are you still doing the right thing?’ ”



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