The Lesia Tsurenko Situation: A mature response

Lesia Tsurenko’s decision to not play Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus at Indian Wells on Sunday was notable for plenty of reasons. It wasn’t just a walkover given to another player. It came after a stormy end to Tsurenko’s win over Donna Vekic in her previous (and as it turned out, last) singles match at this tournament. It involved a Ukrainian player refusing to play a Belarusian player in the middle of a war, at a time when Wimbledon has still not rescinded its ban of Belarusian and Russian players. Tsurenko’s decision is also notable because she has pulled out of several other tournaments in recent months.

It is reasonable to say that the war in Ukraine has taken a toll on Tsurenko, which is not only understandable but natural and logical. Of course a war in one’s home country would be traumatic. What Tsurenko is going through is horrific and something to be taken seriously.

The leadership of Steve Simon as the CEO of the WTA Tour is being tested by this situation. While it’s unwise to speculate too much on what is and isn’t being said in public, we can say that this situation cries out for resolution and a mature discussion which can meet the needs of Tsurenko and other Ukrainian players upset by a perceived lack of care and attention.

It is notable that Tsurenko played the qualifying rounds and then the first round of the Australian Open, a tournament which did not ban Belarusian or Russian players. Sabalenka, of Belarus, won the tournament, in fact. So, it doesn’t really seem that banning Belarusian or Russian players is the central issue here, something Wimbledon should take note of.

This is more about being attentive to the individual needs of athletes and — if there are disagreements on how to proceed — at least making sure athletes are being heard. Steve Simon needs to pass that test. Some will say he is failing, and that might be true, but as this controversy lingers, Simon has a chance to make things right, and it’s best to wait and see if he begins to read the room better.

In terms of providing a truly mature and professional response to everything connected to Lesia Tsurenko’s situation, we have a very complicated mixture of realities to consider. It’s partly the war in Ukraine and how Ukrainian tennis players are cared for in the midst of that. It’s partly about making the distinction between being a Belarusian or Russian — which is not a crime — and providing actual material aid and support to Vladimir Putin and the war crimes he has committed.

If a Belarusian or Russian player makes comments to the effect of, “Ukrainians must be exterminated,” or “Ukraine must die,” yes, that would be appalling and perfectly valid grounds for a ban. Short of that, however, is it really the business of tennis administrators — or the administrators of any other sport — to ban players simply for their nationality, or simply for being caught up in ancient regional grievances and disputes they played no role in furthering or intensifying?

Again: Being Russian or Belarusian is not a crime. Ukrainian athletes — in tennis or any other sport — deserve to be cared for in unique ways, for the obvious reason that they can’t really go to their home country right now, at least not if they want to have any safety or security. Giving Ukrainian athletes extra stipends, extra allowances for health care or per diems when traveling to various countries on tour, and other similar moves, makes complete sense and should not become a point of contention for WTA leadership. These things should be naturally provided, and they should apply to players from other war-torn nations.

However, if any Ukrainian player is demanding additional sanctions against Belarusian or Russian players, when those Belarusian or Russian players have not materially aided Putin or have not made any vile or objectionable public statements wishing death or violence upon Ukrainians (or any other groups), that’s not something which can or should be considered.

We have already discussed this. Moreover, the folly of banning or sanctioning Belarusians or Russians was revealed last summer at Wimbledon, when Elena Rybakina — a Moscow native who speaks Russian and has Russian roots — won the tournament under the flag of Kazakhstan. Did playing under the flag of one country somehow make everything right?

Rybakina’s decision to play for Kazakhstan had nothing to do with Putin or geopolitics, anyway. She switched flags and allegiances simply because the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation was willing and able to offer financial support for her tennis career. If the roles were reversed — a Kazakh player received financial support from the Russian Tennis Federation and decided to play for Russia — would that have any real meaning or influence on world affairs or on Russia’s prestige? That is cosmetic and peripheral. It’s about optics, nothing more. It isn’t a deterrent or incentive for Putin to continue to discontinue his awful war. As though he’s thinking about a f***ing tennis tournament in the middle of all this. Come on now.

The Tsurenko situation is about being attentive to the mental health needs of players, something which came up when Naomi Osaka went through her very public period of uncertainty in front of the global press. You can debate how sincere Osaka was, but what outsiders think about a player’s actual state of mind is secondary at best, irrelevant at worst. What matters is that whatever the player might say or think, s/he is being cared for. If they make requests which — like Ukraining players needing more provisions at tournaments or more stipends for various needs in a time of war — seem well within the bounds of what a reasonable person or group could allow, then by all means give it to them.

Steve Simon can’t just let things stand as they are and wish Tsurenko good luck on her journey. Simon needs to act to make sure Tsurenko is being listened to and truly cared for. There aren’t bigger, more important things for Simon and the WTA to tend to right now. The welfare of your athletes — who are your product — should obviously come first.

We will find out in the coming weeks if the WTA gets this thing right.

We should be absolutely clear in saying it: Sanctioning Belarusian or Russian players is in no way a part of a mature and meaningful solution.

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