Ukrainian tennis player laments lack of support in her sport

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Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko plays a shot against Poland's Iga Swiatek during their first round match at the French Open tennis tournament in Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Monday, May 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PARIS – Words such as “invasion" and “politics,” “ban” and “boycott,” are suddenly a part of the daily discourse in tennis, as in many segments of society, really, and for Ukrainian pro player Lesia Tsurenko, these are not abstract concepts.

Her country is under attack from Russia. It weighs on her constantly.

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Taking the court to try to do her job, try to swing a racket better than the woman across the net on any given day, is really the least of her concerns. And after losing to No. 1-seeded Iga Swiatek 6-2, 6-0 on Monday in the French Open's first round, Tsurenko described what she finds as disconcerting as anything: a lack of colleagues who have spoken out publicly about Russia's invasion or approached her to express sympathy or even simply discuss what is happening in Ukraine.

“For me, personally, it's tough to be here,” Tsurenko said, “just because I don’t get much words said about the support of my country. And it’s just tough to be with people who look like they don’t understand. It’s just tough. ... I’m Ukrainian, and there’s a war in my country, and it’s tough. I think five players spoke to me. Maybe four or five. Maybe a few more coaches. ... But what can I do?”

Tsurenko, who turns 33 in a week, is from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. She is ranked 119th and her best Grand Slam showing was the quarterfinals at the 2018 U.S. Open.

After considering going home following the invasion that began in late February — “And try to help there in some way; I don’t know in which way, but just in some way,” she said — Tsurenko decided to press on.

“It’s not very easy to be here,” Tsurenko said. “I don’t feel that I care too much. So I’m trying to find this balance between, ‘Just go on court and don’t care’ vs. ‘Try to care.’ In some cases, it helps. Like, I don’t really put pressure on myself. I just go and play. But in some ways I just feel like, 'OK, whatever. I win or lose, whatever. It doesn’t matter really."

Now unable to go home between tournaments, she said she joined countrywoman Marta Kostyuk at a tennis academy in Italy before coming to France.

They are two of four women from Ukraine who were in the singles field at the French Open; there were zero men. A total of 18 players from Russia or Belarus — which helped with the invasion — were in the men's and women's draws; they are not being identified by their nationalities by tournament organizers.

While the International Tennis Federation did prevent Russia and Belarus from participating in its Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup team competitions, and some other sports, such as soccer, have barred those countries from their events, Tsurenko noted that there has been only one tennis tournament that took a stance: The All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus from competing at Wimbledon, which starts on June 27.

In response, the WTA women's tour and ATP men's tour issued a rebuke by saying they would not award ranking points at Wimbledon.

“I don’t know if I can ask players to care more, but I would like to see that from the players, from the WTA, from ATP,” Tsurenko said. “I would like top players just to support more and to show more understanding of what is really going on.”

In Paris, players have tended to avoid weighing in on whether the All England Club or the tours are in the right.

“I don’t have a clear opinion. ... I understand both sides,” 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal said after winning Monday.

Naomi Osaka said after her first-round loss that she is “leaning more towards not playing” at the All England Club this year. Her explanation did not make any reference to Ukraine, but instead was: “I feel like if I play Wimbledon without points, it’s more like an exhibition.”

Tsurenko needed to win three times in qualifying just to get into the main bracket at Roland Garros. Thanks to the draw, her reward was a matchup against Swiatek, the 2020 champion in Paris, whose victory Monday extended her current winning streak to 29 matches.

Swiatek wore a blue-and-yellow ribbon — the colors of Ukraine’s flag — pinned to her white hat, a sign of solidarity she's displayed for several weeks. She is from Poland, a country that borders Ukraine and has welcomed millions of refugees.

At her news conference, the 20-year-old Swiatek carefully avoided making a strong statement, and acknowledged as much.

“Well, honestly, I was trying to avoid saying straightforward what I think, because ... every solution is going to be wrong for some people. ... The sport has been used in politics, and we are kind of public personas, and we have some impact on people. It would be nice if the people who are making decisions were making decisions that are going to stop Russia’s aggression," Swiatek said.

“I feel like I have that responsibility, but on the other hand, I don’t have much life experience and I’m aware of that,” she added. “And, yeah, when I’m going to be ready to say more, I will.”

In the meantime, Tsurenko is left hoping to hear more.

“I want people to understand that war is terrible and there is nothing worse in this world than a war," she said. “I think when it’s not in your country, you don’t really understand how terrible it is.”


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