PARIS — Unable to sleep the night before her first-round match at the French Open against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, the Grand Slam tournament’s No. 2 seed, Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine checked her phone at 5 a.m. Sunday and saw disturbing news back home in Kyiv.
At least one person was killed when the capital of Kostyuk’s country was subjected to the largest drone attack by Russia since the start of its war, launched with an invasion assisted by Belarus in February 2022.
“It’s something I cannot describe, probably. I try to put my emotions aside any time I go out on court. I think I’m better than before, and I don’t think it affects me as much on a daily basis, but yeah, it’s just – I don’t know,” Kostyuk said, shaking her head. “There is not much to say, really. It’s just part of my life.”
That, then, is why Kostyuk has decided she will not exchange the usual post-match pleasantries with opponents from Russia or Belarus. And that is why she avoided a handshake – avoided any eye contact, even – after losing to Australian Open champion Sabalenka 6-3, 6-2 on Day 1 at Roland Garros.
What surprised the 20-year-old, 39th-ranked Kostyuk on Sunday was the reaction she received from the spectators in Court Philippe Chatrier: They loudly booed and derisively whistled at her as she walked directly over to acknowledge the chair umpire instead of congratulating the winner after the lopsided result. The negative response grew louder as she gathered her belongings and walked off the court toward the locker room.
“I have to say,” Kostyuk said, “I didn’t expect it. … People should be, honestly, embarrassed.”
Kostyuk is based now in Monaco, and her mother and sister are there, too, but her father and grandfather are still in Kyiv. Perhaps the fans on hand at the clay-court event’s main stadium were unaware of the backstory and figured Kostyuk simply failed to follow usual tennis etiquette.
Initially, Sabalenka – who had approached the net as if anticipating some sort of exchange with Kostyuk – thought all of that noise was directed at her.
“At first, I thought they were booing me,” Sabalenka said. “I was a little confused, and I was, like, ‘OK, what should I do?”
Sabalenka tried to ask the chair umpire what was going on. She looked up at her entourage in the stands, too. Then she realized that while she is aware Kostyuk and other Ukrainian tennis players have been declining to greet foes from Russia or Belarus after a match, the spectators might not have known – and so responded in a way Sabalenka didn’t think was deserved.
“They saw it,” she surmised, “as disrespect (for) me.”
Sabalenka called the whole experience “emotionally tough” – because of mundane, tennis-related reasons, such as the nerves that come with any first-round match, but more significantly because of the unusual circumstances involving the war.
“You’re playing against (a) Ukrainian and you never know what’s going to happen. You never know how people will – will they support you or not?” explained Sabalenka, who went down an early break and trailed 3-2 before reeling off six consecutive games with powerful first-strike hitting. “I was worried, like, people will be against me, and I don’t like to play when people (are) so much against me.”
A journalist from Ukraine asked Sabalenka what her message to the world is with regard to the war, particularly in this context: She can overtake Iga Swiatek at No. 1 in the rankings based on results over the next two weeks and, therefore, serves as a role model.
“Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody – normal people – will never support it. Why (do) we have to go loud and say that things? This is like: ‘One plus one (is) two.’ Of course we don’t support war,” 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.”
When a portion of those comments was read to Kostyuk by a reporter, she responded in calm, measured tones that she doesn’t get why Sabalenka does not come out and say that “she personally doesn’t support this war.”
Kostyuk also rejected the notion that players from Russia or Belarus could be in a tough spot upon returning to those countries if they were to speak out about what is happening in Ukraine.
“I don’t know why it’s a difficult situation,” Kostyuk said with a chuckle.
“I don’t know what other players are afraid of,” she said. “I go back to Ukraine, where I can die any second from drones or missiles or whatever it is.”
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