The U.S. Open held a “Tennis Plays for Peace” event on Wednesday. It was a fundraising event for Ukraine relief held before the start of this year’s final grand slam event. The exhibition raised $1.2M, according to the United States Tennis Association (USTA). A Belarusian tennis player, Victoria Azarenka, was removed from the exhibition after a Ukrainian player, Marta Kostyuk, turned down an invitation to play in the event over Azarenka’s participation.
You can’t blame Kostyuk for expressing her disapproval. Russia is Belarus’ largest and most important economic and political partner. Wednesday marked the six-month mark in Putin’s war in Ukraine and it was also Independence Day in Ukraine. This year marks the 31st anniversary of the year Ukraine separated from the Soviet Union.
“In the last 24 hours, after careful consideration and dialogue with all parties involved, Victoria Azarenka will not be participating in our “Tennis Plays for Peace” Exhibition this evening,” the USTA said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
“Vika is a strong player leader and we appreciate her willingness to participate. Given the sensitivities to Ukrainian players, and the on-going conflict, we believe this is the right course of action for us.”
It seems like the USTA should have thought about the list of tennis players invited to participate a little more closely. Azarenka arrived in New York and was ready to take part in the fundraiser.
— victoria azarenka (@vika7) August 24, 2022
I say the USTA should have known better because since Putin’s war in Ukraine began in February, Ukrainian players have voiced disapproval of participating with Russian or Belarusian players in tournaments and events.
Marta Kostyuk, who was born in Kyiv, told the Ukrainian news outlet BTU she turned down an invitation to participate in the event after learning Azarenka, a two-time Grand Slam champion, would be on the court as well.
“Of course, I received an invitation,” Kostyuk said. “I think all our players got them. When [fellow Ukrainian player] Lesia Tsurenko and I found out — I’m only talking about us now, because we didn’t ask anyone — so when we found out that there would be representatives of Russia or Belarus at this event … I immediately said that [we] will not participate in this.”
A few Ukrainians did decide to participate, though.
Current Ukrainian players Dayana Yastremska, Katarina Zavatska and Daria Snigur took to the court for the exhibition, as well as former players Sergiy Stakhovsky and Olga Savchuk. It is unknown how many Ukrainian tennis stars besides Kostyuk and Tsurenko rejected invitations to participate.
The Women’s No.1 world player is Polish and she was eager to show her support for Ukraine.
Participating in the event held in New York were Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek, John McEnroe, Coco Gauff, Carlos Alcaraz, Leylah Fernandez, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Jessica Pegula, Matteo Berrettini, Maria Sakkari, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda and Ben Shelton.
Nadal and Swiatek took on McEnroe and Gauff in one of the highlights of the evening.
Women’s world No. 1 Swiatek said: “For me, especially because Ukraine is right next to my country and because we as Poles are really united and helping, and I want to use every opportunity to show people that we all can be united.”
US star Coco Gauff added: “For me to speak out is something that I always cherish. I always said you can change the world with your racket.
“So being here today on Armstrong and playing for such an amazing cause is something that I won’t take for granted, and I’m grateful to do it amongst legends of the sport.”
A member of the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York, 12-year-old Ustyn Chornyy, sang the Ukrainian national anthem.
On Tuesday, the Ukraine Ministry of Youth and Sports announced that 133 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have died during the six months of Putin’s invasion into Ukraine. The USTA said that all ticket revenue from the exhibition will go to GlobalGiving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. It supports humanitarian assistance in communities in Ukraine and surrounding regions where Ukrainian refugees have fled.
Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that a player from Belarus wanted to help raise money for Ukrainian relief. She may suffer retribution upon her return home for supporting Ukraine. I don’t think that’s too far out there of a thought. Putin is a brutal dictator and treats Belarus as his puppet government. No doubt he expects loyalty from the people of Belarus as he does of his own.