As the French Open Begins, the War in Ukraine Roils the Locker Room

PARIS — The idea by the men’s and women’s tennis tours was to take a strong stand against Wimbledon’s decision to keep out players from Russia and Belarus, then let tennis and competition move the conversation away from politics and the invasion of Ukraine.

It has not worked out that way.

On Monday, the second day of the French Open, the politics of tennis and Russia reared its head once more. The professional tours’ announcement Friday night that they would not award rankings points this year at Wimbledon, essentially turning the most prestigious event in tennis into an exhibition and punishing players who did well there last year, has roiled the sport, igniting a sharp debate over the game’s role in a deeply unpopular war and dominating the conversation at the year’s second Grand Slam.

Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine spoke emotionally about the invasion, saying it has made her care little about winning or losing. Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1, talked of the sport being in disarray. Naomi Osaka, one of the biggest stars, said she was leaning toward skipping Wimbledon if the decision not to award rankings points for match victories there stands.

“I feel like it’s not united,” Swiatek said after defeating Tsurenko, 6-2, 6-0, in her opening match while wearing a Ukraine pin on her cap, as she has for the past three months. “It’s all the people who are organizing tournaments, like, for example, WTA, ATP and I.T.F., they all have separate views, and it’s not joint. We feel that in the locker room a little bit, so it’s pretty hard.”

Swiatek’s comments came shortly after Tsurenko described how lost she has been since late February. Tsurenko, who was ranked as high as No. 23 in 2019, said she at first wanted simply to go home and figure out how she could help with the war effort, but she decided to keep playing and competed in important tournaments in Miami and Indian Wells, Calif.

Then, after an early loss at a tournament in Marbella, Spain, and no tournament on her schedule for another three weeks, she realized she had nowhere to live or train. With the help of another player from Ukraine, Marta Kostyuk, she landed at the Piatti Tennis Center in Italy, but the psychological challenge remains of balancing her career while her country faces an existential threat.

“I just want to enjoy every match, but at the same time, I don’t feel that I care too much,” she said. “I’m trying to find this balance between just go on court and don’t care versus try to care. In some cases it helps.”

Tsurenko spoke emotionally about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying it had made her care little about winning or losing.Credit…Thibault Camus/Associated Press

After feeling emboldened by Wimbledon’s decision to bar players from Russia and Belarus, Tsurenko and her compatriots were disheartened by the WTA’s decision to strike back.

“When it’s not in your country you don’t really understand how terrible it is,” Tsurenko said. Compared with what she and her country have been through, giving up the chances for rankings points seems like a small price to pay, she said. “For them, they feel like they are losing their job,” she said of the players who are barred. “I also feel many bad things. I feel a lot of terrible things, and I think, compared to that, losing a chance to play in one tournament is nothing.”

She hates the propaganda used by the Russian government to disparage her country. She said no more than five players had expressed their support for her since the start of the war. She dreads being drawn against a Russian player in a tournament.

Dayana Yastremska, who is also from Ukraine and who also lost Monday, said the decision to withhold points for Wimbledon was not fair to players from Ukraine.

“We are not a happy family right now,” said Yastremska, who still does not have a training base and was unsure where she would spend the next weeks.

In an interview this month, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, said the organization had to live up to its principle that access to tournaments for players should be based on merit alone. He also said that discriminating against a player because of the actions of her country’s government was not acceptable.

“I can’t imagine what the Ukrainian people are going through and feeling at this moment, and I feel bad for these athletes who are being asked to take the blame for someone else’s actions,” Simon said.

Russian players have expressed disappointment in Wimbledon’s decision and appreciation for the tours’ support in protecting what they view as their right to play, though no player has sought relief in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer with experience in right-to-play cases, said tennis players from Russia and Belarus would most likely have a strong case.

“We are professional athletes, we put effort every day in what we do and basically want to work,” said Karen Khachanov of Russia, who won his opening-round match Sunday and was a semifinalist at Wimbledon last year.

One of the few players not to express an opinion was Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a former world No. 1 and member of the WTA Players’ Council, but her distress over the disagreement was clear.

Credit…Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“I say one thing, it’s going to be criticized; I say another thing, it’s going to be criticized,” said Azarenka, who once had a close relationship with President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus.

In its statement Friday, the ATP said its rules and agreements existed to protect the rights of all players as a whole: “Unilateral decisions of this nature, if unaddressed, set a damaging precedent for the rest of the tour. Discrimination by individual tournaments is simply not viable on a tour that operates in more than 30 countries.”

The tangible impact of the ATP and WTA decisions on the sport was evident Monday as Osaka made her feelings known about possibly skipping Wimbledon. She is not a fan of grass surfaces to begin with, and without an opportunity to improve her ranking, she might struggle to find motivation.

“The intention was really good, but the execution is kind of all over the place,” Osaka said.

Swiatek, who is from Poland, which has supported Ukraine perhaps more than any other country, said locker room conversations, which might once have been about changing balls during matches, have shifted to discussions of war, peace and politics. She stopped short of overtly stating her position, but she hardly masked her sentiments.

“All the Russian and Belarusian players are not responsible in what’s going on in their country,” Swiatek said. “But on the other hand, the sport has been used in politics and we are kind of public personas and we have some impact on people. It would be nice if the people who are making decisions were making decisions that are going to stop Russia’s aggression.”