The WTA is facing further backlash as Lesia Tsurenko’s coach, Nikita Vlasov, calls out the organisation’s superficial measures to protect Ukrainians as insensitive amid the on-going Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A month has passed since I visited Bucha and Irpin, and saw with my own eyes all the horror and consequences of the Russian invasion. Lost and destroyed lives, the homes of our people. So grateful to @grammarly for joining my fundraiser and contributing $80,000. For my part, I will add another $20,000. This way, only $20,000 remains to be raised for the restoration of the residential complex at 53 Kyivska Street in Iprin. I invite you to join, so that 390 Ukrainians can return home as soon as possible. Elina Svitolina
“In my mind, it’s something straight from a horror movie if a man, who is the head of a company, brings a girl, who’s already suffering from war, to a panic attack with his words and stance,” Vlasov said. “The only thing the WTA really did to support Ukrainians was to place a large vase with blue-and-yellow flags in the office so the players could pin them and show solidarity.”
Vlasov also said the WTA has yet to respond to Ukrainian players’ request to conduct a meeting ‘regarding Steve Simon’s unsatisfactory conduct’.
“So far, there has been no information or email regarding a meeting, or a call, as far as I know,” he added.
He accuses the WTA of turning a blind eye towards the issues raised by players from Ukraine, and says this isn’t new since the organisation has never been the one to initiate such conversations.
“Russian and Belarusian players continue to live a normal life, while Ukrainians endure the hardships and horrors of the war,” he said. “WTA didn’t come forward with an idea to meet with the Ukrainian players in any form, online or offline, even once.”
Meanwhile, World No 1 Iga Swiatek recently called for more attention to be given to the atrocities faced by players from the invaded country, rather than the complications faced by those from the aggressor nations.
“Representatives have never asked them whether they have any problems, and for some reason, even the WTA No 1 sees it, but not the CEO,” Vlasov added.
Two-times Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus again jumped into the fray, saying: “There are certain players that have different feelings and behaviours. Overall, I don’t necessarily share the same opinion as Iga does.
“I’d encourage her to look at the things that have been done before she makes comments.
“As a player council member I’m happy to provide the facts. That would be a more appropriate way to have that conversation.”
To emphasise her point, Azarenka went on to say the WTA has evidence of work done to support Ukrainian players.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian players and Ukraine’s tennis federation have told their National Olympic Committee (NOC) that banning them from competing with Russians would lead to ‘destruction of Ukrainian tennis’.
“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 UTF statement said.
“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.
“We stand with the position of continuing to compete in international competitions, intensifying the fight for the removal of players from Russia and Belarus.”
The letter of appeal was signed by President of the UTF, Sergiy Lagur, as well as members of the national team Angelina Kalinina, Dayana Yastremska, Katarina Zavatskaya, Nadezhda Kichenok, Alexander Ovcharenko, Vladislav Orlov and Ilya Beloborodko.
The ITF ruled in 2022 that Russia and Belarus were suspended from team competitions, but that players from the two countries were eligible to compete in WTA and ATP tournaments with neutral status.
Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka said she struggled to understand the ‘hate’ she encountered in the locker room, amid strained relations between some players following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The World No 2 has previously said she has nothing against Ukrainian people and felt bad for them as Moscow’s action rages on.
Belarus has been a staging area for the invasion, which Moscow calls a ‘special military operation’.
“It was really tough for me because I’ve never faced that much hate in the locker room,” Sabalenka said ahead of the Miami Open. “There are a lot of haters on Instagram when you’re losing matches, but in the locker room I’ve never faced that.
“It was really tough to understand that there’s so many people who hate me for no reason. I did nothing.”
Earlier in the tournament, Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko withdrew from her match against Sabalenka because of a panic attack triggered by that conversation with WTA chief Simon about tennis’s response to Russia’s invasion.
Sabalenka said she had been having ‘weird conversations’ with members of some players’ teams in the last year.
“It was really tough but now it’s getting better,” she said.
Tensions continue to rise between WTA players as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine while Russians and Belarusians continue to participate on tour in the 2023 season.
Elsewhere, former World No 3 Elina Svitolina will make her return to the WTA Tour following the Ukrainian’s maternity break at next month’s Charleston Open in South Carolina after accepting a wild-card, organisers of the clay court tournament said.
Svitolina, who last played a year ago in Miami, is set to return to action following the birth of her daughter Skai with husband and fellow tennis player Gael Monfils.
The 28-year-old has also partnered with the tournament and WTA Charities to host a special ‘Tennis Plays for Peace’ pro-am event in April, benefiting war-torn Ukraine and the Elina Svitolina Foundation.
“Increasing awareness and raising funds for Ukraine is very important to us as a tournament and to our players,” tournament director Bob Moran said in a statement. “We are passionate about working with Elina, who has a deep and personal understanding of the needs in her home country right now, to further exemplify the mission of Tennis Plays for Peace and stand united with Ukraine.”
The tournament hosted a pro-am in 2022 and raised $100,000 in donations for relief efforts in Ukraine.
Svitolina, who has won 16 WTA titles and is a two-times Grand Slam semi-finalist, will be joined in the Charleston field by 5 former champions including holder Belinda Bencic and Sabalenka.
She witnessed ‘the horror and consequences’ the Russian army left in Bucha and Irpin after returning in February to her homeland for the first time since the invasion started.
“A month has passed since I visited Bucha and Irpin and saw with my own eyes all the horror and consequences of the Russian invasion,” she said. “Lost and destroyed lives, the homes of our people.
“So grateful to @grammarly for joining my fundraiser and contributing $80,000. For my part, I will add another $20,000. This way, only $20,000 remains to be raised for the restoration of the residential complex at 53 Kyivska Street in Iprin.
“I invite you to join, so that 390 Ukrainians can return home as soon as possible,” Svitolina wrote in her message on Instagram.
It is just 5 months since Svitolina last played competitive tennis at the Miami Open in April 2022, and has always been adamant that she would eventually return to competitive tennis following the birth of her daughter.
Besides Svitolina, Sabalenka and Bencic, World No 3 Jessica Pegula, No 4 Ons Jabeur, and No 8 Daria Kasatkina, have also signed up for the clay-court tournament in Charleston.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Svitolina admitted that the invasion of her country remains a ‘very sad day’ while she also lamented reports that Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to compete at next year’s Paris Olympics.
“This is something that you would never wish your enemy to face,” she said. “It’s a very sad day.
“It’s going to be very sad, and the wrong message would be sent to the world if Olympics going to stay with the decision to put them [Russia and Belarus] under a neutral flag.
“I don’t think this is the right decision.”
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping released a statement welcoming the IOC’s move to allow Russians to compete as neutrals after meeting in Moscow.
The Russian and Chinese Presidents also condemned Western nations using sport for ‘unseemly purposes’ after Xi’s historic visit ended on Thursday.
Putin welcomed the Chinese leader for the first time since he launched the invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
“The parties welcome the relevant initiatives and decisions of the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which jointly uphold Olympic values,” the joint statement reported by Russian state media TASS said.
“The parties oppose the politicisation of sports, and hope to use the unique role of physical culture and sports to promote solidarity and peace.”
Putin targeted nations which had called for the Olympic ban on Russia and Belarus, imposed after the invasion, to be maintained.
“Western countries are trying to use sports for unseemly purposes as a tool of pressure,” Putin told TASS.
The IOC Executive Board is expected to further discuss the question of neutral participation at Paris 2024 when they meet next week.
It has already indicated that ‘a pathway for athletes’ participation in competition under strict conditions’ should be explored, while the OCA has said it would welcome Russians at the Asian Games.
The International Fencing Federation has already voted to re-admit Russian and Belarus fencers to events from April, which will enable them to take part in qualification events for the Olympics.
This week, boxers from both nations are competing in at the International Boxing Association Women’s World Championships in New Delhi.
The OCA Athletes’ Forum, meanwhile, declared last week that it supported the return of Russian and Belarus athletes under a neutral flag, with this stance also backed by the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa.
There are fears at the IOC that expelling Russia could lead to rival breakaway sporting events which could challenge the Olympics.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the 8 nation union for economic and security purposes which has Russia and China among its members, is to create a sports association, and could host Games.