As tennis wrestles with Russia’s invasion, a Ukrainian player calls for compassion

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PARIS — For world-class athletes, the ability to shut out everything that doesn’t relate to the point or the play at hand is an invaluable asset. But with her native Ukraine three months into a war for its survival, Lesia Tsurenko wants fellow players and tournament officials to understand that compartmentalizing is not easy for Ukrainians on the pro tour.

“Being Ukrainian and trying to stay on tour and to continue playing is a big, big issue now,” Tsurenko said Monday at the French Open. “We probably are all working with psychologists now; we are all thinking a lot about the country and about our families.”

For Tsurenko, at 32, life matters far more than what unfolds inside a tennis court’s lines. And since Russia invaded Ukraine, the purpose of her life, with the peak of her playing career behind her, has consumed her, as well.

“My first idea was to go home when it all started, and I had a long conversation inside of me that should I stay and play, or should I just go to Ukraine and try to help there in some way,” Tsurenko said. “I don’t know in which way, but just in some way.”

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Tsurenko, a former top-25 player currently ranked 119th, has chosen to keep competing, weathering the unlucky draws and tough days like Monday at the French Open, where she lost to world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in 54 minutes, in hopes of achieving a better result and reclaiming what joy remains in tennis at the next tournament stop.

Still, Tsurenko’s internal dialogue has hardly quieted since deciding to play on, any more than the bombs and artillery fire have quieted in Ukraine. Her dialogue continues, more complex and more wearying, as she wrestles with where to live, where to train and whether she is doing the right thing.

Some days, the question is how to summon the passion she once felt upon walking on a stadium court, knowing there is far more at stake in Ukraine.

“I’m old enough to understand a little bit more about this world, and I understand that there is something much bigger than just a tennis match,” said Tsurenko, who had found a temporary home, with a friend’s help, at a tennis academy in Italy. “So, I’m trying to find this balance between ‘Just go on court and don’t care,’ versus ‘Try to care.’”

The French Open has sought to steer clear of controversy over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, welcoming players from Russia and its warring partner Belarus, unlike Wimbledon, which announced it will bar them next month. But acrimony over Wimbledon’s decision, followed by the pro tours’ retaliatory refusal to award ranking points for Wimbledon competitors, has infiltrated the gates at Roland Garros, tucked in a leafy corner of southwest Paris.

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Some players, such as former No. 1 Naomi Osaka, have raised the possibility of skipping Wimbledon if points aren’t awarded.

Rafael Nadal, the French Open’s 13-time champion, said Monday that he understood both Wimbledon’s position and that of the ATP in withholding points, which he said he views as an effort to protect players.

Victoria Azarenka, a former world No. 1 from Belarus, is among the players who’ll be banned from Wimbledon. But Azarenka declined to take a public stance on the controversy Monday, explaining that she wanted to be “helpful” instead.

“I’m not going to sit here and say how hard it is for me, looking at what’s going on in the world,” said Azarenka, 32, who worked behind the scenes as a member of the WTA Player Council on a failed effort to reach a compromise that penalized no one at Wimbledon.

Tsurenko doesn’t fault Wimbledon’s ban, calling it “not a very big price” for Russians and Belarusians to pay. She opposes the tours’ decision to withhold points, which determine rankings. And she said she’d find it difficult to compete against players from Russia and Belarus because “It reminds me what is going on in my country.”

But speaking to a small group of reporters after her 6-2, 6-0 loss to Swiatek, Tsurenko didn’t lobby for boycotts or call for specific action. Instead, she asked for basic expressions of humanity and compassion.

To date, she said, she has heard such words from maybe four or five players and a few coaches.

“I don’t know if I can ask players to care more, but I would like to see that from the players, from the WTA, from ATP, I would like top players just to support more and to show more understanding of what is really going on,” she said.

“… I want people to understand that war is terrible, and there is nothing worse in this world than a war. I think when it’s not in your country you don’t really understand how terrible it is.”

Swiatek, a Warsaw native, is among those showing outward support for Ukraine, which borders Poland to the East, by wearing a blue-and-yellow ribbon on her cap.

“I really appreciate the support that Iga is showing,” Tsurenko said. “Poland in general is doing so much for Ukraine … the friendship between Ukraine and Poland is, it’s amazing.”

At 20, Swiatek is the youngest women’s player in the top 10 and, of late, routing all comers. Her victory over Tsurenko extended her winning streak to 29 matches, the longest in women’s tennis since 2013, and she’s a prohibitive favorite to claim her second French Open title this year.

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But she, too, is having an internal conversation over the sport’s response to war in Ukraine. Among the questions Swiatek said she is asking herself: What is her proper role as the world’s No. 1 player, mindful of the platform she now has? How much does she truly understand, at 20, aware that she lacks “life experience” and has had the good fortune to have grown up without a war at her doorstep?

“Basically, I feel like it’s a pretty tricky situation, and every solution is going to be somehow wrong one for some part of people or players,” Swiatek said when asked her position on Wimbledon’s ban and the tours’ refusal to award points.

In her case, she said, she wasn’t worried about the points, conceding with a half-smile that she was fine playing with or without them. (As the tour’s dominant player, she has an abundance, with 7,061 to the 4,911 of second-ranked Barbora Krejcikova, the defending French Open champion who fell in three sets Monday to Diane Parry of France.)

“For me, it’s more the political side of things, because, you know, Poland is supporting Ukrainians, and the war is right next to my country,” Swiatek said.

As for whether she should stake out an explicit position on the sport’s current controversy, Swiatek said, “I’m split because I don’t really know if I should do more or really stay focused, because that’s the first time I have a situation like that in my life. So, I’m going to see. But we are discussing, and we are trying to do something — but something that is also not going to distract us.”

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