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Without handshakes, Ukrainian players trying to keep message alive at Australian Open

Two years on from the start of the invasion, the war continues but with Ukraine slipping down the news agenda, players are worried that their cause is being forgotten

Ukraine's Elina Svitolina reacts during her second round match against Bulgaria's Viktoriya Tomova.
Ukraine's Elina Svitolina reacts during her second round match against Bulgaria's Viktoriya Tomova.CIRO DE LUCA (REUTERS)

A Ukrainian player refusing to shake the hand of a Russian or Belarusian at the net has become a common sight on the tennis tours over the past two years. For those Ukrainian players competing at the Australian Open in Melbourne, it’s a gesture that has more meaning than ever.

“This is another reminder about the fact that there is a war in my country,” Lesia Tsurenko said on Friday, after her match with Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus. “I do this for Ukraine. And I think this is the right thing.”

There was no handshake at the end of the match between Sabalenka and Tsurenko on Friday, nor after Marta Kostyuk and Elina Avanesyan played, although both Ukrainians did acknowledge their opponents.

Two years on from the start of the invasion, the war continues but with Ukraine slipping down the news agenda, players are worried that their cause is being forgotten.

“The worst thing is that you get too used to it,” Dayana Yastremska told reporters in Melbourne this week. “And this is very bad. Because most of the people are forgetting what is going on there.

“We know about everything because we receive the news, we are reading, we are into it (but) the words are not hitting that hard like it was when the war just started. I think it’s important to remember about it and do everything.”

Kostyuk said journalists need to keep the news alive.

“They want the drama, they wanted news, they wanted all this heating between players and everything,” she said. “The war is still there. People are still dying every day. I still don’t understand what all these (Russian and Belarusian) players are doing here.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the plight of Ukrainian players was uppermost in everyone’s minds, with Wimbledon banning Russian and Belarusian players from competing that year and numerous fund-raising events held around the tennis world.

However, the ATP and WTA Tours decided to allow individuals from those countries to compete, albeit not under their country’s flag. Wimbledon lifted its ban in 2023, under pressure of sanction against Britain’s grass-court events.

Since the war began, Ukrainian players have made a point of not shaking the hands of Russians and Belarusians, sometimes to the confusion of crowds, who have blamed the loser.

At Wimbledon last summer, Belarusian player Victoria Azarenka was booed after losing to Elina Svitolina. Wimbledon rejected a suggestion by Svitolina that crowds should be informed about the situation before and during the match, but the U.S. Open did adopt the idea, putting a message on the big screens.

There was no booing at Melbourne Park with crowds seemingly aware of and understanding the situation.

Svitolina describes it as her “mission” to keep Ukraine in the public eye but Tsurenko said it’s an increasingly difficult battle because “people don’t want to hear bad news”.

“I get a lot of bad messages on social media (and) people (are) kind of annoyed if I post something,” said Tsurenko, who revealed that she had worked with a psychologist to help her do her job while dealing with the emotions of the war. “Seems like everyone, the whole world is kind of tired of hearing that. But unfortunately it’s still going on. It’s part of my life and part of the Ukrainians’ life

“And we have to talk about it. We have to remind people about Ukraine, and of course about all other wars that are going on right now, around the world, how unfair it is. Of course I would like all the wars to stop, especially my country, but I think this should be an effort from the whole world.”

Yastremska has personal experience of the war, with her grandmother narrowly escaping a bomb that hit her building earlier this month.

“That was crazy,” she said. “I woke up early morning before my match (in Brisbane). I had a late session and in the morning, I got to know that the rocket arrived on the house of my grandmother.

“It was between the 16th and 17th floors and she was living on floor 20. Thank God, she wasn’t exactly in the apartments, but that was kind of scary.”

Svitolina continues to thank everyone who is doing something to help, but Yastremska said her frustration is growing.

“People are supporting, yes. But when I mentioned like, WTA, or someone, they just tell me, do you need a psychologist? Thank you. Not gonna help.”

On Thursday, the match between Yastremska and Varvara Gracheva, who recently changed her nationality from Russian to French, ended with the two players tapping rackets at the net.

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