By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
The past few weeks have seen parallel storylines on the tennis tours. On one hand, the progression of matches and the results of the players shaping the primary flow of the season have dominated headlines, as they ought to. On the other hand, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has meant that the harsher realities of the world have started to seep into the bubble of professional tennis.
This is especially true for players who hail from Russia and Ukraine, even as narratives about the war’s influence on the sport continue to be built and rebuilt as the invasion takes on a more gruesome form each day. For athletes from each country, the task of handling life in the tennis spotlight has gotten tougher with each passing day.
The Ukrainians include Elina Svitolina, Marta Kostyuk, and, in particular, Dayana Yastremska, who fled her home in Odessa with her teenage sister, leaving her parents behind as Russian missiles pummeled the terrain. Ukrainians on tour have been playing more to uphold their nation’s honour than for personal laurels, to motivate their countrymen and women back home who are trying to shore up their physical and emotional reserves against the Russians’ onslaught.
This was amply seen earlier this month when Svitolina took to the courts in Monterrey, reaching the semifinals there. Yastremska pushed aside her trauma to reach the final in Lyon. While Svitolina and Yastremska lost their opening-round matches at Indian Wells, Kostyuk made it through to the second round with a hard-earned three-set victory.
On the other side of this spectrum are the Russian players whose on-court and off-court bearings, have also collided thanks to the decisions of the man ruling their country. If their fellow pros from a neighbouring country are proud to say that they hail from Ukraine, for the Russians, it’s the complete opposite. While several high-profile Russian players, including Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, were prompt in disavowing the invasion as soon as it began and still continue to do so, at this point they are trying to play as a means of consciously putting a barrier between where they hail from geographically and what they stand for on a personal front.
The highs of Rublev’s two-week winning run in Marseille – where he won both the singles and doubles titles – and Dubai were short-lived. Medvedev’s ascendance to the top of the men’s singles rankings, ending an 18-year reign of four men (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray) became shrouded by this emerging geopolitical story.
Following the collective decision-making of the ITF, ATP and WTA to suspend the Russian and Belarusian tennis federations – the latter for aiding Russia in its war-making – the Russian players are playing flagless. There’s also a possibility that tennis might suspend the players from participating, as several other sporting bodies have done, thus effectively casting them aside at a time when they, too, seem to view the sport as their saving grace in a dark time.
In a press conference at Indian Wells before his opening-round match, Medvedev said that he hoped tennis wouldn’t follow suit in emulating those sports in suspending Russian and Belarusian players. At the same time, he went on to note, “It’s always tough to talk on this subject because I want to play tennis, (to) play in different countries. I want to promote my sport. I want to promote what I’m doing in my country for sure, and right now the situation is that that is the only way I can play (without representing Russia).”
In terms of seeing the bigger picture, there’s only one side that’s right: Ukraine’s. Within the more specific realm of tennis for Russian players, specifically Medvedev and Rublev, there’s a lot more at stake on an individual front with even more to lose.
This American swing through Indian Wells and Miami offers a chance for them to gather themselves and start from scratch this season. Doing so would go a long way in keeping the plotlines around them centred around their on-court performances, not their relationship to a government and dictator over whom they have absolutely no control or influence.