The French Open kicked off with a controversial match between Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine. While Sabalenka emerged victorious, the crowd at Roland Garros’ main court, Philippe Chatrier, booed Kostyuk when she left the court without shaking hands with Sabalenka. Kostyuk has refused to shake hands with any player from Russia or Belarus due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Sabalenka, who is the reigning Australian Open champion and the second seed in Paris, spoke out against the war in a rare statement of defiance by an athlete from Belarus or Russia. She said that nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, supports the war and that normal people would never support it. However, Kostyuk dismissed Sabalenka’s sentiments as empty words and said that she personally knows athletes from tennis that support the war.
The impact of the war in Ukraine on tennis has been constant and never-ending. Fifteen months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war shows no end in sight. Belarus has provided a staging ground for Russian soldiers, and its leader has said the country would join the war if attacked. Belarus and Russia have been banned from team tennis competitions, and their flags and country names have been banished from the sport. The moves have left players from Ukraine unsatisfied and players from Russia and Belarus feeling like pariahs.
The tension on Sunday was in stark contrast to the otherwise celebratory feel of the first day of the French Open. It is often one of the most joyous days in tennis, especially with the sky sparkling with that special shade of bright Parisian blue. The absence of the injured star Rafael Nadal, whose record 14 men’s singles titles have made him synonymous with this event, is weirding everyone out. But as Nadal has said, tennis moves fast and waits for no one.
On Monday, Elina Svitolina, among the most successful players Ukraine has produced, will make her Grand Slam return from maternity leave, against Martina Trevisan of Italy. Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine, whose grandparents had to leave their home and whose parents’ home was bombed, will play Diane Parry of France on Tuesday in her first match after her emotional run to the Italian Open final this month.
Kostyuk said that everyone is in a very different situation and whoever needs comfort, she is always there. She was shaken by the reaction of the crowd, which was so different from a supportive reception in the United States this year when she refused to shake the hand of a Russian opponent. She believes that people will not feel nice about what they did in 10 years when the war is over.
Kostyuk last visited Ukraine in March to see her father and grandfather. She traveled there after the Miami Open, requiring four flights to get to Poland by way of her temporary home in Monte Carlo, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride to the border, and then a six-hour car ride. She spent five days there, struggling to sleep amid the distant sounds of bomb-carrying drones that her relatives have somehow learned to live with. She said she still has not recovered from the trip.
While Kostyuk hopes for a day when a war would no longer intrude on her chosen occupation and every tennis match would be nothing more and nothing less than that, it was clear that Sunday was not that day. The war may very well make this tournament and tennis summer unlike any before it.
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