Ukrainians Find Russian Coming-Out Party Hard to Celebrate at U.S. Open
Earlier in the summer, barred from Wimbledon after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian and Belarusian tennis stars spent time with their families or trained far from tennis’s spotlight. Aryna Sabalenka, practicing in Miami, said she turned off the television whenever Wimbledon was being broadcast.
But the door to Grand Slam tennis reopened last week in New York, and they have seized the opportunity.
Karen Khachanov, a bearded Russian extrovert with a big game and forehand, is into the men’s singles semifinals at the U.S. Open after defeating Nick Kyrgios in a late-night five-setter.
Sabalenka, a powerful Belarusian who has often struggled this season, is back in the women’s singles semifinals after her authoritative victory, 6-1, 7-6 (4), over Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday and is playing and serving well enough to win her first Grand Slam singles title.
One of those watching from the stands in Pliskova’s box was Olga Savchuk, a former Ukrainian tennis star who continues to oppose the Russians’ and Belarusians’ being allowed to play in this or any tournament.
“I try not to think about it anymore when I’m watching because it brings me really, really down and brings a lot of emotions,” Savchuk said after Sabalenka’s victory. “I realize it’s tough to continue to live every day thinking about this constantly. So, I just realize that I cannot change the decisions which are not made by us and which we cannot control.”
Savchuk, now retired, was the captain of the Ukrainian team that lost to the United States in the qualifying round of the Billie Jean King Cup in Asheville, N.C., in April. During that competition, Savchuk and the Ukrainian players expressed gratitude for the support they were receiving from the public but said that one of their biggest fears was that the war, which began in February, would become normalized and that global interest would wane.
Savchuk, 34, believes that fear has become reality, even though she appreciates the efforts made by the U.S. Open to raise funds in support of Ukraine by staging a successful exhibition before the tournament.
“I feel, overall, people are tired of it now, tired of hearing about it,” she said of the war. “Things are slowly changing that way, and so it’s like I should just go with it. And this is horrible, because for us, we cannot just go with it. Nothing has changed for us. It’s just worse. More time, more destruction, more losses.”
Wimbledon’s controversial ban, the first of its kind at a major tennis tournament in the modern era, was made under considerable pressure from the British government, whose prime minister was then Boris Johnson.
The British leadership wanted to avoid Wimbledon being used as propaganda by Vladimir V. Putin and the Russian government.
Ukrainian players expressed deep appreciation for the ban and the support.
“All of us, we wrote to the Wimbledon organization and the tournament director as well, and I talked to him personally,” Savchuk said.
But the ban did not quite work as planned. The surprise women’s singles champion turned out to be Elena Rybakina, a Russian-born player who had agreed to represent Kazakhstan because of its financial support but long remained based in Moscow.
Shamil Tarpischev, the longtime president of the Russian Tennis Federation, made a celebratory statement after her victory.
Though Russia and Belarus were also barred from team tennis competitions such as the Davis Cup and King Cup after the invasion, their players have been allowed to continue participating as individuals in other tournaments without formal mention of their nationality. The U.S. Open is not announcing their nationalities during on-court introductions, and ESPN is not displaying their national flags in its coverage.
Though both the men’s and women’s tours condemned the invasion of Ukraine, they strongly opposed Wimbledon’s ban, arguing that individuals should not be prevented from competing based on their nationality or on governmental decisions beyond their control.
Concerned that Wimbledon’s move could set a precedent for future bans based on politics, the tours made the unprecedented decision to strip Wimbledon of ranking points, essentially turning one of sport’s most prestigious events into an exhibition and contributing to Rybakina’s being seeded just 25th at the U.S. Open. (She lost in the first round on an outside court.)
After lengthy deliberation, the board of the United States Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open, chose not to follow Wimbledon’s lead and allowed the Russians and Belarusians to compete.
Four reached the round of 16 in both men’s singles and women’s singles, and while Khachanov and Sabalenka remain in contention, no Ukrainian players are left.
It is an awkward scenario, but Lew Sherr, in his first year as the U.S.T.A.’s chief executive and executive director, emphasized on Wednesday that the U.S.T.A. “continued to condemn the unjust invasion of Ukraine by Russia.” He said the U.S. Open had raised $2 million in humanitarian aid for Ukrainian relief. Some of that came from the “Tennis Plays for Peace” exhibition staged Aug. 24 in Arthur Ashe Stadium that featured the Spanish star Rafael Nadal and the No. 1 women’s player, Iga Swiatek of Poland.
But even that initiative generated tension. Ukrainian players, including Marta Kostyuk, opposed the plan to include the Belarusian star Victoria Azarenka in the event, maintaining that Azarenka had not been supportive behind the scenes and that as an influential member of the WTA Player Council had played a role in stripping Wimbledon of points.
Azarenka withdrew from the exhibition, and after she defeated Kostyuk in the second round, Kostyuk declined to shake hands with her at the net, tapping rackets instead.
Azarenka, a former No. 1 who is one of Belarus’s biggest international stars, said after that match that she had reached out to the Ukrainian players she knew personally and offered behind-the-scenes assistance since the invasion but had not spoken with the 20-year-old Kostyuk.
“I don’t feel that forcing myself to speak to somebody who maybe doesn’t want to speak to me for different reasons is the right approach,” she said. “But I offered.”
Some Russian players have spoken out, including Daria Kasatkina, who has been bold enough to actually call the conflict “a war” and termed it “a full-blown nightmare.” “A lot of respect for her,” said Savchuk, who said she had since sent Kasatkina a message of appreciation.
Like Azarenka, Sabalenka has met in the past with Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus who has cracked down on protest and been one of Putin’s staunchest allies.
But Sabalenka has avoided public comment on the war while acknowledging that the situation has made it a challenge to perform.
“It’s tough, and it’s a lot of pressure,” she said on Wednesday. “I’m just thinking in that way that I’m just an athlete, and I have nothing to do with politics.”
She said she made use of the forced break during Wimbledon to work on improving her serve. But Sabalenka, who reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2021, said it was not easy to observe the tournament from afar.
“Tough time,” she said. “Especially when I was working out in the gym, and there was Wimbledon playing on the TV. I was always turning it off because I couldn’t watch it.”
Savchuk has struggled to watch television for different reasons in the past six months. Now based in London and the Bahamas, she was born and raised in Donetsk in the disputed Donbas region and still has family in Ukraine.
“I have not seen my family, and until the war is over I don’t want to go there, and I miss them so much and more and more,” she said.
She said she felt increasingly powerless and demoralized.
“It kills you that you can’t change it,” she said. “I feel like we still are getting a lot of help around the world with money and donations, but I feel in people’s minds following the news, the interest has dropped. I even look at my Instagram whenever I post something about the war, people almost don’t look at it.”
She said it stung to see Russian and Belarusian players competing down the stretch in the U.S. Open.
“I was very disappointed that they were allowed to play,” she said. “But what kills me more is seeing Russian people continue living their happy lives and posting about it.”
David Waldstein contributed reporting.