The acrimony over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cast its shadow on the US Open on Thursday night when Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine refused to shake hands with Victoria Azarenka from Belarus. Kostyuk had lost in straight sets and they just tapped their racquets but the reaction was pre-planned ahead of the game. She had even texted Azarenka that she wasn’t going to shake hands.
Kostyuk has been outspoken in her belief that Russian and Belaurusian players should be banned from the sport. In April, Kostyuk led a team of players from Ukraine in demanding the tennis administrators to ask players from Russia and Ukraine if they supported the war and denounce it if they did not. If there was no denouncement, then Kostyuk and co. believed the players should be banned from international events.
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal, and that time is now,” the statement from the players said then.
Azarenka defeats Kostyuk 6-2, 6-3. No handshake, just a racket tap… pic.twitter.com/WogSSznz2t
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) September 1, 2022
On Thursday night, Kostyuk explained her refusal to shake hands with Azarenka, who has made many appearances with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko in the past. She said she had texted Azarenka ahead of the game though the two didn’t speak about it.
“It was my choice, I feel like I don’t know any single person who condemned the war publicly, and the actions of their government, so I don’t feel like I can support this. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great competitor. But, it has nothing to do with her being a human being.”
Last week, Kostyuk had successfully urged the United States Tennis Association to stop Azarenka from participating in an exhibition to benefit relief efforts in Ukraine.
“Imagine there is World War II and there is a fundraiser for Jewish people and a German player wants to play,” Kostyuk said.
Azarenka couldn’t understand the decision. “It’s a no-brainer for me, as why wouldn’t I participate in humanitarian aid for people who are really struggling right now,” she said. “I thought that this was a gesture that really shows commitment. I’m not sure why it wasn’t taken that way.”
Shortly after Kostyuk spoke, Azarenka put forth her point of view in her press conference. She said she had reached out via the WTA to have conversations with Ukrainian athletes in the past few months but were told to refrain.
“I’ve been told it’s not a good time,” she said. “I’ve had a very clear message from the beginning, that I’m here to try to help, which I have done a lot. Maybe not something that people see. And that’s not what I do it for. I do it for people who are in need, juniors who need clothes, other people who need money or other people who need transportation or whatever. That’s what is important to me, to help people who are in need.”
Azarenka said if Kostyuk wanted to speak with her, she was “open any time to listen, to try to understand, to sympathize,” adding, “I believe that empathy in the moment like this is really important.”
The relations between the players from the warring nations have been tense for months. Poland’s Iga Swiatek, the world No.1 who has condemned the invasion and held her own fund-raisers for Ukraine relief efforts, said on Thursday: “Right now, it’s kind of too late, I think, to fix that. Right now, it’s easy to say that maybe there was a lack of leadership, but at that time I didn’t know what to do either.”