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In making a muscular show of support for Ukraine at the US Open, the USTA chooses a third way
A spotlight on Ukraine may make some players uncomfortable, but if it shocks them out of their complacency, it’s a win
Published Aug 09, 2022
THE BREAK: Elina Svitolina raises money for Ukraine relief
NEW YORK—United States Tennis Association officials, choosing not to follow in Wimbledon’s footsteps, are welcoming Russian and Belarusian players to compete in the US Open. It’s a controversial decision fraught with perils given the atrocities being inflicted daily on Ukraine, as well as the escalating, anti-American saber-rattling emanating from Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin minions.
This is a done deal. It also may not prove to be the bitter pill it appears for those who are keenly disappointed by the USTA’s decision.
American tennis officials may be able to show that there is a viable “third way” to deal with the previously binary ban question, while also promoting and supporting the Ukrainian cause. Doing so will surely carry far more weight if it is done while players from sanctioned nations are in the competition. The presence of those players also increases the odds that New Yorkers will be mobilized to show up at the gates of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to protest, or simply support Ukraine (New York City has more than 150,000 Ukrainian residents, more than any other city in a nation with over 1 million people of Ukrainian descent). Many of them are aware that Russian and Belarusian stars have largely responded to Putin’s depredations with resounding silence.
The biggest—and potentially most impactful—piece in the strategy is a “high quality” exhibition at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Aug. 24 (not coincidentally, that is Ukraine’s Independence Day).
This “third way” scenario has been laid out by the USTA in the awkwardly titled strategic paper, “Tennis Plays for Peace Campaign in aid of Ukrainian Crisis Relief.”
The debate over whether or not to accept the players that Wimbledon sanctioned within the USTA was contentious, and officials emerged from it understanding the optics and potential repercussions of their decision. Chris Widmaier, Director of Corporate Communications for the USTA, told me last week, “We felt that the athletes should not be held responsible for their governments’ decisions. We also decided that we needed to do something for humanitarian reasons and to raise awareness about Ukraine.”
Further, US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster told the New York Times on Monday that the USTA did not choose its course of action in order to minimize or look past the war in Ukraine, but rather to elevate its significance in the public eye. She said, “You turn on the news now and the war is the fifth or sixth story sometimes.”
The strategic plan for the upcoming tournament was born of those internal debates and discussions, the consensus being that an aggressive show of support for Ukraine might serve to refocus eyes and win many hearts and minds on behalf of the nation Russia is trying to wipe off the map. It certainly didn’t hurt that the strategy might also make the USTA’s third way more palatable to those incensed by Russia’s actions.
In the strategic memo, the USTA resorted to uncharacteristically strong language, promising to “Utilize the power and platform of the US Open to deliver unprecedented and consequential results that demonstrate the USTA’s steadfast support to promote global awareness of the magnitude of the war being waged against the people of Ukraine.”
The biggest—and potentially most impactful—piece in the strategy is a “high quality” exhibition at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Aug. 24 (not coincidentally, that is Ukraine’s Independence Day). Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek, Coco Gauff, John McEnroe and Carlos Alcaraz are among those who have already committed up to play. The most intriguing question is whether or not any Russian or Belarusian player chooses to participate.
US Open promoters are clearly taking a stand. That puts pressure on players to do the same.
Taking part in the exhibition offers players from the two sanctioned nations the opportunity to engage in a low-risk display of sympathy for Ukraine and a repudiation of Putin’s war. While it is commonly held that players fear speaking out for fear of reprisals, including against their families or relatives, those who have found the courage to speak out—they include Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daria Kasatkina and Andrey Rublev—seem to be carrying on unmolested. These athletes are not obscure dissidents or heretic academics—they are national heroes. The damage done to Putin’s cause by doing them harm probably far outweighs the benefit of silencing them, while punishing them for competing in a tennis exhibition would make Putin look petty, even desperate.
Victoria Azarenka, the 33-year old two-time Grand Slam singles champion from Belarus, has appeared in public a number of times and is said to be friendly with Belarusian President—and major Moscow puppet—Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. Azarenka also sits on the policy-forming WTA Player Council despite the obvious conflict of interest. According to Allaster, Azarenka confirmed that she would participate in the upcoming exhibition. That’s a surprise, but Azarenka and her team have been notably silent on the issue, so nothing is certain.
The other eye-catching component in the USTA strategy is the promise to raise $2 million from partners, fans and players. It’s a lot of money. And while Americans are generous givers, they have also grown a little inured to the fundraising world. In order for the campaign to punch through the ho-hum familiarity, support for Ukraine needs to be granular, as visible—and visceral—as a flood of rippling blue-and-yellow flags, or lapel pins. The USTA plans to stock many key locations, including luxury boxes and—most importantly—player areas with pins and ribbons honoring Ukraine. That may seem like a sop, but those kinds of gestures can make a difference. And wouldn’t it be great if those entering the grounds would be offered small Ukrainian flags.
If it seems unfair, or even cruel, to force defending champion Daniil Medvedev or Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka to look up from the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium during a match to see hundreds of Ukrainian flags fluttering: tough luck. Nobody is forcing them to compete in the US Open, a tournament whose promoters are clearly taking a stand. That puts pressure on players to do the same. Claiming that you’re for “world peace” doesn’t cut it anymore. Not taking a stand is also a stand.
If that seems cold, what about the indifference so many in the industry have shown toward their Ukrainian peers, as well as the invasion and continuing butchery? Tennis is right behind soccer as a major international sport, featuring players from a multitude of nations. Yet meaningful demonstrations of support for Ukraine have been modest, and rare, nowhere more so than in the privacy of the locker room.
A spotlight on Ukraine may make some players uncomfortable, but if it shocks them out of their complacency, it’s a win.
Lesia Tsurenko was asked on the first day of Wimbledon what it’s been like seeing Russian or Belarusian players in the locker room. She replied:
“I don't feel good seeing them. . . I don't know about other Ukrainian players, but I just heard from one Belarusian player that she’s supporting us, me, and Ukraine, and she’s against the war. I haven’t heard from anyone else that they are against the war. So I don’t know their opinion about that, and not speaking to me and not saying to me anything makes me feel bad and creates this tension inside of me.”
If true—and there’s no reason to think it isn’t—this is shameful. The pro players are generally decent, reasonably well-informed, and proud of their elite status. Yet as these horrors have unspooled, tennis players have thrust their heads deeper and deeper into the sand. A spotlight on Ukraine may make some players uncomfortable, but if it shocks them out of their complacency, it’s a win.
Another potential benefit of the USTA strategy is that it could severely undermine any PR or morale-boosting dividend that Russia or Belarus may try to mine from tournament broadcasts of their star players in action. Medvedev, Azarenka and their compatriots may find themselves in some very uncomfortable positions during the US Open. That’s nothing to celebrate, but it’s also what happens when so many have stuck their heads down into the sand.