Ukraine marked two key dates on Wednesday, 31 years of Independence from Russia and 6 months of war waged by Russia following the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion earlier this year.
In the world of tennis, controversy continued over the well-intentioned Tennis Plays for Peace Exhibition staged by the USTA to raise funds for Ukraine, to which it invited players in the main draw of the US Open to participate.
Rafael Nadal, Carlos Alcaraz, Iga Swiatek and Cori Gauff all accepted, as did Victoria Azarenka, a Belarusian Grand Slam champion, much to the disgust of Ukrainian players.
Marta Kostyuk, ranked 72, revealed she also received an invitation but declined, saying she would not play if any player from ‘the aggressor countries plays’.
“I’ve got an invitation to join, I think, all of Ukrainian players have got them,” she said. “No one asked Ukrainian players if they would be fine to see Russia/Belarus players there.
“I won’t play if players from aggressor countries play.
“Nobody asked our opinion on such an idea to invite Russian and Belarusian players. Nobody is interested in that.
“It’s on Ukraine’s Independence day, but what the Ukrainians actually think, nobody is interested in that too.”
At the eleventh hour, the USTA made a dramatic u-turn, announcing in a statement: ”In the last 24 hours, after careful consideration and dialogue with all parties involved, Victoria Azarenka will not be participating in our Tennis Plays for Peace Exhibition this evening.
“Vika is a strong player leader and we appreciate her willingness to participate.
“Given the sensitivities to Ukrainian players and the ongoing conflict, we believe this is the right course of action for us.”
Belarus is being used as a staging ground for Russia’s war in Ukraine, which it has termed a ‘special military operation’, while Azarenka has been linked to the Belarusian President and was a proponent of the penalties imposed on the All England Club and British tennis with the WTA Player Council and Board.
The WTA not only stripped Wimbledon of ranking points for The Championships but also imposed fines on both The Club and the LTA amounting to around $1 million.
Kostyuk has been vocal about Azarenka’s involvement, claiming that the Belarusian has given her no help, even though she is a member of the WTA Player Council.
“I did not understand the reason why they called Victoria Azarenka [to play the exhibition],” she told a Ukrainian tennis. “There was no open help from her in our direction.
“She did not communicate with me, but I know that she communicated with [Ukraine’s] Serhiy Stakhovsky, with [France’s] Gaël Monfils in Madrid.
“There was no dialogue with me personally, although it cannot be said that I was invisible.
“Maybe I’m not that visible because I’m not ranked high enough to be talked to, but that’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking about the fact that I’ve been active enough since the beginning of the war.”
Azarenka, unlike at Wimbledon, is allowed to compete in the US Open along with other players from Belarus and Russia, although their national flags and emblems are banned in accordance with the position of the WTA, ATP and ITF took at the start of the war.
The United Nations reports that 5,587 civilians have been killed and 7,890 injured since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine with help from their military ally Belarus, although the death toll is feared to be far higher, while millions have crossed neighbouring borders to flee the war.
Azarenka appeared to address her exclusion from the exhibition in a tweet later on Wednesday, saying: “Never take for granted the impact of a kind gesture.”
The flag incident in Cincinnati last week, where a woman was ejected from the court on which two Russians, Anna Kalinskaya and Anastasia Potapova were playing a match, because she was draped in a Ukrainian flag that was deemed ‘too big’, sparked off a demonstration outside the grounds.
The peaceful gathering took place outside the Lindner Family Tennis Centre in Mason, Ohio, on the day of the semi-finals of the men’s and women’s singles tournaments.
As well as showing their support for Ukraine, protesters also showed their support for the fan forced to remove the flag.
“What happened to our friend, who was kicked out of the tennis tournament due to wearing the Ukrainian flag, was not acceptable,” said one of the protesters, Evgenia Nemirovska Santos. “Why are you allowing [Russian players] to dictate the rules?”
After the incident itself, the woman said Kalinskaya and Potapova were bothered by the flag and asked the chair umpire to tell her to remove the flag but when she refused, a security guard came to her and told her would call the police if she didn’t leave the court.
“I can’t even wrap my head around it,” Kostyuk told Ukrainian Tennis. “Beyond cynical to post pics with other flags, but act like that towards the Ukrainian flag?
“We know from the start that the tour’s support is not on our side, unfortunately, but this was just something else, unimaginable.
“The thing is, WTA told us, that not a single player supports Russia, that they are all good. But we see that the Ukrainian flag somehow triggers them?
“And the players who support war/Putin do trigger us, nobody cares about that.”
While the tennis authorities maintain that all events must remain open to all without discrimination, the war in Ukraine continues to impact the world on so many levels – humanitarian and economically, as well as threatening global security – all because of the whim of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The USTA aspires to raise more than $2 million to help Ukraine during the course of the US Open, beginning with the Tennis Plays for Peace Exhibition on Wednesday.
All proceeds from the exhibition were to be donated to GlobalGiving, the international non-profit identified by Tennis Plays for Peace to support humanitarian assistance in impacted communities in Ukraine and surrounding regions where Ukrainian refugees have fled.
Leading the players participating were Spaniards Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz, Coco Gauff of the United States, Canada’s Leylah Fernandez and women’s World No 1 Iga Swiatek from Poland.
Under the lights of Louis Armstrong Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre playing for peace, they were joined by Jessica Pegula, Maria Sakkari, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and Carlos Alcaraz, alongside Ukrainian’s Dayana Yastremska, Katarina Zavatska and Daria Snigur.
Former players, Sergiy Stakhovsky and Olga Savchuk, were also on hand, Stakovsky having served in the Ukrainian army and Savchuk serving as the country’s Billie Jean King Cup captain.
In all, 21 current and former tennis players participated in the 5 doubles sets played across the exhibition, with Swiatek & Nadal first facing John McEnroe & Gauff, followed by Pegula & Ben Shelton against Fernandez & Felix Auger-Aliassime.
After Swiatek & Nadal won the spirited set, Swiatek spoke about how the situation in Ukraine has been at the top of her mind over the last 6 months.
Swiatek called on the Ukrainian people to stay strong in her victory speech at Roland Garros in June, and last month, raised 500,000 Euros in support of Ukrainian children at an exhibition event in Poland that also featured Agnieszka Radwanska and Elina Svitolina.
Zavatska was the first Ukrainian player to take the court on the night, partnering Italy’s Berrettini against Sakkari & Tsitsipas.
One of the highlights of their set was Tsitsipas committing to make an individual donation in support of the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.
Zavatska, who represented Ukraine in Billie Jean King Cup play against the USA earlier this year called special attention to the fact that the exhibition was held on 24 August, Ukraine’s Independence Day.
“On this day, all the Ukrainian people, this year’s fireworks are not the same,” she said. “I really wish next year we will celebrate this day with a free Ukraine.
“One day, every single person is going to live in peace. And everything is going to be OK.”
New York at night and the City showed up, with fans in the stands wearing the national colours, and on-court personnel also decked with blue and yellow ribbons.
Twelve-year-old Ustyn Chornyy from the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York sang the Ukrainian national anthem, and representatives from Manhattan traditional Ukrainian restaurant Veselka made a special appearance, and got to hit with Nadal, Swiatek, Gauff and McEnroe.
Wednesday’s event was the beginning of the US Open’s tournament-long efforts to raise awareness and aid for Ukraine, which will include the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York performing during the Opening Night ceremonies on Monday 29 August.
Tennis Plays for Peace, comprised of all 7 of tennis’ governing bodies including the 4 Grand Slams, has raised more than $1 million in humanitarian aid and, additionally, helped the US Open surpass $1.2 million in funds raised for Ukraine relief.
To learn more or to donate, visit TennisPlaysforPeace.com .