Russian and Belarusian players have been competing on both the ATP and WTA tours under a neutral flag since Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with the assistance of Belarus
Ukrainian tennis player Lesia Tsurenko says she and her compatriots’ only resort is to beat their Russian and Belarusian rivals “on any field” as she is resigned to sports organisations not taking tougher action. Russian and Belarusian players have been competing on both the ATP and WTA tours under a neutral flag since Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with the assistance of Belarus.
Tsurenko, 33, told AFP in an interview she was feeling “big stress” as she waits to see if she is drawn against a Russian or Belarusian in the French Open which starts on Sunday.
However, she also sounded a defiant note.
“My message for the French Open is it is like what I said about other sports – we just have to go and beat them on any field,” she said.
“There is no sense for Ukrainian sportsmen to give up. What sort of message does that give?
“In tennis we tried so many things to ban them and the tennis organisations do not want to listen to us.”
Tsurenko is frustrated by the lack of support, even in private, she and her fellow Ukrainians have received from Russian and Belarusian rivals even though some “used to be very good friends”.
“Just one person spoke directly to me the first day of the war,” she said.
“That person told me with tears in their eyes that everything going on is so terrible.
“Now no more players talk to me. I do not have much sympathy for any of them. I can just say if they suffer we suffer much more.
“There are many ways that you can help in these cases. You can change citizenship or move your family if you are afraid.
“I honestly do not think they want to speak out because those who support the war will be revealed.”
- ‘Using my name’ –
Tsurenko — ranked 63 in the world having reached a career-high 23 — had a well-publicised panic attack which forced her to withdraw from playing Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus in the third round of the Indian Wells tournament in April.
Tsurenko said the panic attack stemmed from an “unpleasant conversation” with WTA CEO Steve Simon.
“I was so shocked that a year ago Steve Simon told us if any player will show their support for the war, this person will be banned.
“Then one year on he changes his attitude to, ‘it is ok to support the war’.
“It shocked me so much it just blew my mind.”
Tsurenko was able somehow, she says, to win her second round match but saw herself being used as a propaganda tool if she played Sabalenka.
“I just imagined if I played that match on centre court then people like Simon will say at a sports chiefs meeting ‘you know they played against each other and it is okay’.
“He would be using my name in a way I do not want it to be used.”
Tsurenko, whose best Grand Slam performance was a quarter-final at the 2018 US Open, says incredulously the “Russians think they are owed something”.
“I have a feeling now the IOC is using tennis as some kind of bridge… to say tennis is all good, they are playing against each other and it is not a problem and will use that in their decision about the Olympics.
“But it is a problem. It is very tough for Ukrainians to play against Russia and Belarus because of many reasons.
“The WTA and IOC are only looking at sports from a perspective of Russian and Belarusian human rights and ignore the violations of the Ukrainians’ rights.”
Tsurenko has yet to return to Ukraine since the invasion but her mother Larisa and sister Oksana have remained there — the latter in Kyiv which this month has come under renewed bombardment
“She tells me she feels like a zombie,” said Tsuren
“She is woken up every night and has to go to a safe place.”
Tsurenko though is determined one day she will move back to the capital city.
“Kyiv is my biggest love. That is my city and the place I love most.”