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Politics and Tennis Continue Colliding at Roland Garros

By Erik Gudris | @atntennis | Monday, June 5, 2023

For players and fans, tennis should be an opportunity to enjoy and celebrate the sport week in and week out.

However, the conflicts of the outside world have made themselves felt on the court throughout the sport's history. And that's certainly been the case at this year's Roland Garros.

More: Ball Kid Struck, Sparking Controversial RG Disqualification

The most talked about, and ongoing global issue that continues to make news in tennis is the 15-month Ukraine and Russia conflict. Ukraine, Russian, and Belarusian players have found themselves defending their actions and words, both on and off the terre battue courts.


That issue may reach its full impact when No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus takes on Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in a highly anticipated women's quarterfinal.


Since the war started, Ukrainian players, like Svitolina, have refused to shake hands with Russian or Belarusian opponents. And that's very likely to be the case tomorrow no matter who wins. 


Outside the court, Sabalenka early on in the tournament faced withering criticism in post-match press conferences about her official stance on the conflict. That's despite the fact that she made her strongest statement against the conflict yet earlier in the event.


"About the war situation, I said it many, many times nobody in this world, Russian athletes, Belarusian athletes - supports the war. Nobody,” Sabalenka said. "How can we support the war? Normal people will never support it."


The criticism against Sabalenka, particularly from one Ukrainian journalist, prompted Sabalenka to recuse herself from official post-match press conferences moving forward at the event to protect her mental health. 



Sabalenka, since then, has now only faced questions from a selected pool of writers either working for the tournament itself or the WTA, a move that has earned both praise, from those who agree that Sabalenka should not have to answer questions she doesn't want to, to disapproval from those who feel that an independent media should be allowed player access no matter what.



The Ukraine conflict wasn't the only global issue making itself felt at Roland Garros.


Earlier in the first week, former champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia, after his first-round win against American Aleksandar Kovacevic, wrote on a television lens, "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia, stop the violence," after the match. 



Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo's independence which was declared in 2008. The issue has flared up recently when Serbs boycotted local elections to stop newly elected Albanian mayors from entering office.


The current World No. 3 Djokovic, whose father was born in Kosovo, defended his action by saying, "The least I could do is this, I feel responsible as a public figure and the son of a man who born in Kosovo, I feel the need to show support to all of Serbia."


Djokovic's action nearly caused an international incident when Kosovo's Olympic authorities asked the International Olympic Committee to begin disciplinary action against Djokovic, while French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said his comments were "not appropriate."


Ultimately, the International Tennis Federation and the French Tennis Federation chose not to punish Djokovic as they said that no Grand Slam rules were broken.


Even when players feel like they are doing the right thing by taking a stand on an issue, they can still get negative feedback, including from fans who may not be fully aware of the entire situation.


That happened to Russia's Daria Kasatkina after her fourth-round loss to Svitolina. The No. 9 seed Kasatkina earned a chorus of boos from the French crowd as she walked off the court, likely due to her being a Russian facing a Ukrainian player. 


Yet, Kasatkina has been one of the few Russian players who has publicly denounced the conflict. That has earned her praise from Svitolina, who called Kasatkina a "brave one" and wishes more Russian players would be like her. 


"Really thankful for her position that she took. She's (a) really brave person to say it publicly, that not so many players did," Svitolina said about Kasatkina. "She a brave one."


Kasatkina reacted on social media to the French crowd's response to her loss, saying she was leaving Paris with a "bitter feeling," despite acknowledging Svitolina's win with a thumbs up just after their match.







With no end in sight to the conflict, it's very likely it will continue making an impact at the next upcoming major - Wimbledon.

The All-England Club who hosts the tournament, faced major criticism last year when it banned all Russian and Belarusian players from competing. 


Tennis Express

This year, Russian and Belarusian players can compete so long as they sign declarations indicating their neutrality. Yet, many of these same players are worried that they will not be able to play at all since the UK is taking extra long to approve their visas into the country before the event starts on July 3.


With no end in sight to all of the conflicts mentioned, the reality is that players, no matter their nationality, will continue to be asked either to give their opinion, or make a statement, whether on or off the court, when a conflict involving their nation arises. That's because they are public figures and representatives of their country. 


How they choose to respond, or not, is their decision. But, as the globe continues to deal with more conflicts and rising tensions on many issues spilling onto the tennis court, remaining neutral or saying nothing may no longer be an option in the future.


Photo Credit: Getty