It rains it pours in Paris. Not a single drop falls, but the sun shines brightly and there is not the slightest trace of water, but in the plant the tension is chewed before, during and after the clash that the number two in the world, Aryna, stars in at the opening of the tournament Sabalenka, and the thirty-ninth, Marta Kostyuk. The scene is not surprising, the tension is latent. Comes from afar. Belarus, Ukraine, the war. Before the duel begins, resolved without major complication by the favorite, 6-3 and 6-2 (1h 11m), the second, Kostyuk, refuses to make the usual protocol greeting and between rally and rally absolute coldness predominates; then, the last point settled, both retire to their respective chairs and the final congratulations also disappear. There is no handshake. Just whistles, boos. The winner does not understand anything and looks everywhere; to the judge, to her bench, to the stands.
“On the court, because of my style, I am aggressive, but off it I try to be positive and try to keep what is good. If people don’t like me or hate me, I understand; It’s her decision, I don’t think I should show if I’m a good person or not”, Sabalenka, probably the best player this season –in conflict with Elena Rybakina– responds to journalists and when she found out that Thursday’s draw had paired her with Kostyuk, already guessed that this Sunday was going to be a cross lined with thorns, beyond sports. The 20-year-old Ukrainian had already behaved like this before Victoria Azarenka, also a Belarusian, last year, and two months ago against the Russian Victoria Gracheva. Maximum distance in between.
“Difficult for her? I’m sorry… ”, she sympathizes with irony, understanding that Sabalenka and the rest of the Russian or Belarusian representatives have not expressed themselves with the necessary forcefulness regarding the military offensive against their country. “I don’t know why it’s a difficult situation for her, they all say it since the war started and I don’t see why. Within two weeks she could be number one in one of the most well-known sports… There are 85% of the population of Russia who support the war and have never left the country; she, who travels the world, who speaks on many platforms to millions of people around the world, uses them only to avoid the responsibility of her having an opinion on one of the most important things. So I don’t hate her, but I don’t respect her,” she says bluntly.
Since Vladimir Putin gave the green light to the invasion of his troops, in February 2022, sport has not been immune to the conflict and suffers from the side effects. In the case of tennis, Wimbledon prohibited Russian and Belarusian players from competing last season – a measure rectified for the next edition, starting on July 3 – and in the locker room environment there is relative tension; without reaching the one that is projected from some forums, but a certain discomfort due to the repeated questions and the insistence on the matter, hidden but at the same time present. The communication departments of the ATP and WTA try to control exposure and messages, but attitudes and speeches like Kostuyk’s circumvent the preventive circle.
Compete without nationality
It so happens that currently, both the men’s and women’s circuits parade an extensive list of players from the countries involved. Specifically, seven tennis players from the top-100 of the ATP are Russians or Belarusians and there are 12 in the WTA, where there are also four Ukrainians classified among the hundred best.
“I have never said that she [Sabalenka] I personally supported the war, but the war was already there a long time ago and you journalists should ask these athletes who they want to win it; if you did, I’m not sure they would say that Ukraine… I personally know tennis players who support it”, stresses Kostyuk, who recently found support in his compatriot Anhelina Kalinina, a finalist in Rome. “We have not shaken hands with her because she is Russian. It is not personal. It’s no secret why she didn’t; that country has attacked Ukraine… Yes, this is sport, but she also has some politics, ”he reasoned when he avoided greeting Veronika Kudermetova, 26.
In general terms, the representatives of Russia and Belarus have been conveying their rejection of the armed conflict and, tired of receiving questions, they prefer to stick to strictly sporting matters. Muscovite Andrey Rublev, who has lived in Barcelona for years, has been the one who has expressed the strongest position against his country’s maneuver. “You can’t act as if nothing happened. I hope that soon there will be peace in all nations”, he has claimed several times. Meanwhile, in the official labeling of the tournaments – clues, television broadcasts, rankings…– The flags of Russia and Belarus are still not shown and the tennis players officially compete without nationality, adhering to the guidelines imposed by the organizations and the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
“We know that they don’t shake hands and we are not surprised, but the public has interpreted it as a lack of respect. At first I thought they were booing me… ”, Sabalenka says when explaining his post-match reaction. “I don’t feel like they hate me,” she clarifies, quoted in the following season of the Parisian tournament with her compatriot Yrina Shymanovich. “I have said it many times: no Russian or Belarusian athlete supports the war. Nobody. How are we going to do it? Of course not. If we could stop it, we would, but unfortunately that is not in our hands, ”she concludes.