At French Open, Ukraine war shatters myth of sport as an apolitical bubble


From the war raging in Ukraine to the unrest in Kosovo, geopolitical crises have cast a pall over the Grand Slam tournament in Paris, challenging conventions and shattering the notion that sport and politics can be kept apart.

For the second year running, sport’s troubled relationship with politics has been a fiercely divisive subject at Roland Garros, heightening scrutiny of players’ behaviour on and off the court, as well as fans’ reactions from the stands.

Fifteen months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war raging at the other end of the continent has been a recurrent topic of discussion, sparking press-room incidents, courtside jeers and talk of a poisonous atmosphere in the dressing room.

With Ukrainian players largely absent from the men’s game, the tension has centred mainly on the women’s draw, where top-ranking players from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus regularly cross paths in an increasingly strained cohabitation.

Their often dramatic confrontations have challenged tennis conventions, including the cherished values of sportsmanship and fair play. This has led to paradoxical situations in the stands, with the French Open’s notoriously fickle fans successively cheering on Ukrainian players against their Russian and Belarusian opponents – and then booing them for shirking a handshake.

“We’re witnessing a collision between two realities: the reality of sport, with its values of tolerance and sportsmanship, and the reality of war,” said Lukas Aubin, an expert in the geopolitics of sport at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IRIS).

“Sports’ various governing bodies like to think that sport is inherently apolitical,” he added. “But in truth the two are increasingly inseparable.”

A model for other sports?

Contrary to many other sports, the WTA and ATP, which govern female and male tennis respectively, have resisted calls to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions, requiring them to compete as “neutrals” instead, with neither flag nor anthem.

“Tennis is a particular case, in that it has been more tolerant of Russian and Belarusian players since the start of the war – with the sole exception of Wimbledon,” said Aubin.

The British Grand Slam was stripped of its ranking points last year, and fined $1 million, over its decision to ban players from Russia and Belarus. It has renounced the ban this year, though players from the two countries will have to sign a declaration of neutrality in order to compete at the All England Club.

When stepping on the courts at Roland Garros, players from the two countries are introduced without a mention of their nationalities. On the scoreboards, their names appear without the customary three letters indicating the country of origin – an omission Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus said made her feel like she “comes from nowhere”.

It’s a model that the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach would like to reproduce across all sports, in time for next summer’s Paris Olympics. Defending plans to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in international competitions, Bach raised eyebrows in late March by citing tennis as an example of successful cohabitation between players from the three countries.

“The IOC is looking for a solution but hasn’t found a good one yet,” said Aubin. “There’s a form of hypocrisy in showcasing tennis as a ‘model’, when it’s obvious that confrontations between Ukrainian players and those from Russia and Belarus are increasingly politicised.”

Asked about Bach’s comments on the eve of the French Open, defending champion Iga Swiatek of Poland spoke of “tensions between players” and a “heavy atmosphere in the dressing room”. In an interview with French daily Le Monde, she also lamented a “lack of leadership from tennis authorities” on the issue.

“We weren’t brought together to explain how we were supposed to manage this complex situation and how we should behave,” said the world number one, who has been an outspoken supporter of Ukraine. “The Ukrainian players are in the worst position, and it would be good if more attention were paid to how they feel and what they are going through.”

The anguish experienced by Ukrainian players was on full display at Indian Wells earlier this year when 34-year-old Lesia Tsurenko, a veteran of the game, pulled out of her match against Sabalenka citing a “panic attack”.

“It’s an ethical conflict every time we have to play against them (Russian and Belarusian players),” Tsurenko told the Ukrainian website Big Tennis. She said she had been shocked by a discussion she had with WTA chief Steve Simon days before, adding: “He told me he was against the war, but that if players from Russia or Belarus supported the war it was their opinion, and I should not let it upset me.”

‘If Ukrainians hate me, what can I do?’

Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion and world number two, has spoken about the “hate” she encounters in the locker room amid strained relations between players over the war. Last month she said she feared the feeling would only increase after she was publicly praised in a speech by Belarus’s strongman Alexander Lukashenko, whose country has served as a platform for the invasion of Ukraine.

“If Ukrainians will hate me more after his speech, then what can I do? If they feel better by hating me, I’m happy to help them with that,” she said at the time, in remarks that did little to endear her to her Ukrainian adversaries.

On the opening day of the French Open, Sabalenka described her first-round clash with Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine as “emotionally tough” – largely because of the context of the war. “You’re playing against a Ukrainian and you never know what’s going to happen. You never know how people will (react),” she said.  “I was worried, like, people will be against me, and I don’t like to play when people (are) so much against me.

The French Open crowd duly rallied behind Kostyuk during the match, only to boo and whistle at her after she refused to shake hands with her opponent. There was more drama soon after, when the subject of the war came to dominate the players’ press conferences.

In a tense exchange, a journalist from Ukraine pressed Sabalenka to be more specific about her stance on the war, noting that she could soon overtake Swiatek as the world number one and become a role model to many.

“I said it many, many times: nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody,” Sabalenka said. “If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could like stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it’s not in our hands.”

The same reporter pressed her again after her second-round win, challenging her to “personally” state her opposition to the war. The journalist also accused Sabalenka of supporting the “dictator” Lukashenko, until a moderator cut her off mid-question.

When Sabalenka won her third match two days later, the No 2 seed skipped the press conference altogether, saying she had felt “unsafe” at her previous presser and citing the need to preserve her “mental health”.

While all four Grand Slams have rounded on Japan’s Naomi Osaka in the past for skipping press conferences on similar grounds, French Open officials backed Sabalenka, in a measure of how much the war has challenged conventions.

Challenging dictators

Ukrainian players have repeatedly called for players from the aggressor countries to be banned from tournaments. They have made no secret of why they refuse to shake hands with them.

After walking off the court under a chorus of boos, Kostyuk said the French Open crowd “should be embarrassed” about its conduct. Her compatriot Elina Svitolina, the former world number three, pointed to the optics of exchanging courtesies with Russian players at a time when Russian bombs are raining down on Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

“Can you imagine the guy or a girl who is right now in the front line, looking at me and I’m acting like nothing is happening,” she told a press conference at Roland-Garros. “I’m representing my country. I have a voice. I’m standing with Ukraine. What the Russian government, Russian soldiers are doing on our land is really, really terrible.” 

Like other Ukrainian players, Svitolina had a different stance regarding her fourth-round opponent on Sunday, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, who has refused to return to her home country since publicly speaking out against the war.

Kasatkina has expressed support for Ukrainian players’ stance on shaking hands. She has also backed a decision by British tennis authorities to provide all Ukrainian players with hotel rooms throughout the forthcoming grass court season peaking at Wimbledon.

“I’m thankful to Dasha (Kasatkina) for taking this position. That’s what you expect from others, as well. It’s really brave from her,” Svitolina said of her Russian opponent, with whom she exchanged a thumbs-up after their fourth-round clash on Sunday. No such niceties are expected on Tuesday when Svitolina takes on Sabalenka in a politically charged quarter-final.

Kasatkina, who trains in Barcelona, has faced further criticism in her home country for coming out as gay and challenging Russian attitudes towards homosexuality. Her outspokenness means she is now unable to travel home safely, “at least until a change of regime”, said Aubin, the IRIS expert, flagging the cost of being a dissident athlete.

“Players are potentially at risk if they speak out against certain regimes, particularly in Belarus, where Lukashenko uses sport as a political platform,” he explained. “It is very difficult to oppose such regimes. Those who do so generally don’t go back.”

That argument has failed to impress the likes of Kostyuk, who bristled after her defeat to Sabalenka when a reporter suggested the Belarusian player was caught between a rock and a hard place.

“I don’t know why it’s a difficult situation for her,” said Kostyuk, who had previously recounted her sleepless night following reports of the latest Russian strikes on her hometown, Kyiv. She added: “I go back to Ukraine, where I can die any second from drones or missiles or whatever it is.”

The ongoing row over the war in Ukraine reflects another specificity of tennis, said Aubin, stressing its international dimension compared to other sports.

“This is a globe-trotter’s sport, in which athletes are seldom in their homes countries and have different experiences from athletes living in, say, the Russian or Belarusian bubble,” he said. “This means the players are both more aware of world affairs and able to see what is going on in their home countries from a different perspective.”

More drama for Djokovic

Many tennis players are also unusually outspoken about their opinions.

Earlier this week, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic kicked off a row at the French Open by scribbling a message about Kosovo on a TV camera lens, a day after NATO peacekeeping soldiers were injured in ethnic clashes in the Balkan state’s northern town of Zvecan, where Djokovic’s father grew up.

“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence,” the 22-time Grand Slam winner wrote in Serbian, before speaking out about the matter at a news conference with reporters from his home country.

That drew a rebuke from France’s Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, who warned Djokovic not to wade into such international issues again at Roland Garros, saying his comments were “not appropriate”.

Such controversies are hardly new for Djokovic, who missed the Australian Open and US Open in 2022 because he never received shots of the Covid-19 vaccine. When he returned to Melbourne this year, he faced questions about his father appearing with a group of people waving Russian flags – at least one showing an image of Vladimir Putin – outside the main stadium.

“Drama-free Grand Slam – I don’t think it can happen for me,” Djokovic said Wednesday. “You know, I guess that drives me, as well.”

This time, however, the former world number one received the backing of several fellow players, including Ukraine’s Svitolina, who defended his right to “say his opinion”.

“We are living in the free world, so why not say your opinion on something?” she said. “I feel like if you stand for something, you think that this is the way, you should say.”

Djokovic also avoided punishment from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which said it had received a request from the Kosovo Tennis Federation demanding that the player be sanctioned over his actions.

“Rules for player conduct at a Grand Slam event are governed by the Grand Slam rulebook, administered by the relevant organiser and regulator. There is no provision in this that prohibits political statements,” an ITF spokesman told AFP.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the matter, the row over Djokovic’s Kosovo comments “proves that sports are indeed politicised and that some causes are more popular and acceptable than others”, said Aubin.

“There is a form of hypocrisy at the heart of sports’ governing bodies, which cling to the idea that politics should stay out of sport,” he said. “Athletes increasingly want to use their voices to support certain causes – and sports need to reconsider the way they approach such issues.”

Source: france24