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Tennis world awash in uncertainty as Russian attack on Ukraine continues
A lasting image from this dystopian epoch will likely be one of 15-year-old Ivanna Yastremska, who arrived for her match with sister Dayana in Lyon draped in Ukraine's flag.
Published Feb 28, 2022
WATCH: Ukraine's top athlete Elina Svitolina vows not play Russian or Belarusian athletes until tennis' governing bodies take appropriate action.
What once seemed a quiet week on the tennis calendar has taken an undeniably surreal turn. Proving that sport is once again at the mercy of an increasingly destabilized world, not even an update to the ATP rankings can occur without a touch of geopolitical irony, as its top spot passes from an ardent anti-COVID vaxxer to a man hailing from a country the International Olympic Committee would ban from all international competition.
In the wake of the Russian government’s Belarus-assisted attack on Ukraine, there are too few certainties on what comes next—least of all from tennis’ governing bodies, who are yet to comment on any of the events that have transpired in the last week.
Ukrainian players released a joint statement critical of the inaction from the ATP, WTA and ITF and asking for a removal of all Russian tournaments from the calendar for the foreseeable future.
“Our country, Ukraine is under brutal attack by superior nuclear power. The bombs and rockets are hitting our houses, killing our people, destroying our life,” it reads, concluding: “Stop the War. Stop Russian Aggression. Bring Peace to our homes. Be HUMAN.”
Elina Svitolina, the country’s top-ranked star, went a step further by vowing not to play any Russian or Belarusian athletes until appropriate action is taken—not an idle threat given she is scheduled to play Russia’s Anastasia Potapova in the first round of the Abierto GNP Seguros in Monterrey.
“I do not blame any of the Russian athletes,” says Svitolina. "Moreover, I wish to pay tribute to all the players, especially Russians and Belarusians, who bravely stated their position against the war. Their support is essential.”
Russian athletes have led a charge in condemning their government’s egregious act of aggression, many posting the hashtag #нетвойне, or, “No to war.” Andrey Rublev won his 10th ATP title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships over the weekend, but not before breaking the collective silence with a plea for “No War, Please” on a camera lens. New No. 1 Daniil Medvedev joined Rublev in advocating for a world in which children can continue dreaming on his latest Instagram post.
“I want to ask for peace in the world, for peace between countries,” he wrote. “Kids are born with inner trust in the world, they believe so much in everything: in people, in love, in safety and justice, in their chances in life. Let’s be together and show them that it’s true.”
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova published a more direct disavowal; out of action for the next two months with a knee injury, the Olympic mixed doubles champion noted the fear all Russians have about speaking out against their government or President Vladimir Putin, but exclaimed nonetheless: “Personal ambitions or political motives cannot justify violence.”
Protests have continued on court as the Open 6ème Sens Métropole de Lyon got underway: Alizé Cornet made good on her promise to wear blue and yellow in honor of Ukraine, and played a powerful first set before falling to Cristina Bucsa, 1-6, 6-4, 6-1.
A lasting image from this dystopian epoch, however, will be one of 15-year-old Ivanna Yastremska, who arrived for a doubles match alongside elder sister Dayana draped in Ukraine’s flag.
The Yastremskas were offered wild cards into the tournament following several nights spent underground in fear of Russian bombs and a harrowing escape by boat.
"I am scared for my parents, my friends, and everybody in my country," she told ESPN. "For you to understand what a missile strike is like, you need to feel it. But, I wish [nobody] has to ever feel this [pain]."
Father Oleksandr, who is required to remain in the country to assist in its defense—recently retired Sergiy Stakhovsky has similarly enlisted to serve in Ukraine's armed forces—sent his daughters off with a tragic farewell, unsure when he would see them again.
"I don't know how this war will end, but you must take care of each other, and strive for your dreams, build your new life and always be together," he told her. "Don't worry about us, everything will be fine."
Physically on court but mentally elsewhere, Dayana and Ivanna endured a defeat to Georgina García Pérez and Xenia Knoll, but were told to “stay strong” by Knoll and the umpire.
“It’s hard to be on the court when all thoughts about Ukraine and family,” Yastremska admitted on Instagram before the match.
With no end to the violence in sight, it’s quickly becoming as uncomfortable to watch sport—knowing what continues to transpire in the background—as it is to play it.