At the US Open, players from Belarus eye unrest at home

By Ben Rothenberg

With the No. 1 ranking, two Grand Slam tennis tournament titles and an Olympic gold medal, Victoria Azarenka is one of the most famous Belarusian athletes of the past decade.

But despite reaching her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in more than four years at the U.S. Open this week, Azarenka is an afterthought at home, in a country normally enamored with sports but currently rapt by mass protests against Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic president known often as “Europe’s last dictator.”

Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has been clinging to power and brutally suppressing demonstrations in the weeks since he claimed a landslide victory in the Aug. 9 election. Lukashenko said he earned 80 percent of the vote, but many Western governments have called the election a farce.

At the U.S. Open, where five Belarusian women and one man won at least one match in the main singles draws, the unrest has become a topic of repeated, if halting, conversation.

With some exceptions, the players have largely resisted the substance of what is happening in Belarus, with many refusing to say directly whether they support Lukashenko or his opposition.

But they have said they think their run at the first major tennis tournament since the coronavirus pandemic has been a footnote at home, despite state media normally closely following the performances of Belarusian athletes and Lukashenko often an active promoter of athletics and fitness. (As he downplayed the threat of the coronavirus earlier this year, Lukashenko promoted hockey, vodka, saunas and farm work as potential cures.)

Belarus has long had a connection to tennis, with a handful of consistently competitive players since the 1990s as part of an influx of Eastern Europeans into the sport, especially on the women’s side of the game.

Yet Olga Govortsova, who reached the second round, said, “Sport is not important right now.”

Govortsova primarily lives and trains in Sunrise, Fla., but she has stayed in close touch with family in Belarus and said they are staying out of the current unrest.

“But they see a lot of people going to protest, and sometimes it’s scary to walk outside,” Govortsova said. “It’s crazy for Belarus.”

Aryna Sabalenka, who was seeded fifth in singles but lost in the second round to Azarenka, said she was preoccupied by her family’s safety after arriving in the United States to play in several tournaments.

During her first tournament here, in Lexington, Ky., a restless Sabalenka “couldn’t sleep,” growing increasingly frantic as she waited for her mother to answer her message.

“I was really worried about her, and she didn’t respond to me,” Sabalenka said. “I forgot the internet there wasn’t working, and I just called her, and as soon as I heard her voice I felt a little bit better, and I could sleep.” She added that it was difficult for several weeks but that “hopefully everything will be calm.”

Both Govortsova and Sabalenka posted a meme titled “Belarusians Lives Matter” on Instagram last month. Sabalenka included a caption that said: “I can’t look at cruelty to people who are defenseless; please stop the violence.”

The most politically outspoken Belarusian player has been the youngest: Vera Lapko, 21, attended a protest in Minsk, the Belarus capital, before reaching the second round of the U.S. Open.

“There were a lot of people,” Lapko said. “They all were peaceful. They all were happy that they can show their opinions, show their emotions, about all that is happening right now. It was really nice to be there next to them.”

While playing, Lapko wore red and white, evoking the flags that have become symbolic for opposition to Lukashenko.

“I decided to keep that to show that I’m with the people,” she said.

Had she won one more round in New York, Lapko would have faced another Belarusian, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, in the third round. After her first-round match, Sasnovich immediately said “no comments” when the subject of Belarus was broached.

Sasnovich, who along with Sabalenka led Belarus to the 2017 Fed Cup final against the United States, has spoken of the pep talks she and her teammates had received from Lukashenko before the matches, which were held in Minsk.

“He said ‘Come on girls, you can do it, Belarus is better than America,’” Sasnovich said in a 2018 interview.

Belarus narrowly lost that final, and Lukashenko expressed his disappointment while praising the team’s “spirit.”

“We men are nothing at all: We play very badly in tennis, football and hockey. Therefore, all hope fell on these delicate girls’ shoulders,” Lukashenko said. “We can just say that they played very well — but they could have won.”

In 2010, Lukashenko attended an exhibition in Minsk between Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki and enthusiastically accepted Azarenka’s invitation to come down on the court and play.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2017, Azarenka, who won a gold medal in mixed doubles at the 2012 London Olympics, said she was once invited to meet Lukashenko and wound up talking about tennis with him for “seven hours straight.”

“My mom thought I was, I don’t know, kidnapped,” Azarenka joked then.

Azarenka’s tone about Belarus and Lukashenko has been considerably more serious and hesitant this year, calling it a “very difficult topic to speak on.”

“That’s breaking my heart to see what’s happening, because not being able to be there and understand the whole situation, it’s really sad,” Azarenka said last month. “It’s really sad, and it’s really difficult to speak on that. But I just hope that all the violence stops immediately, really does, because it’s really heartbreaking. I can’t even speak without tears in my eyes when I think about it.”

After beating Sabalenka last week, Azarenka said she hoped people in Belarus were watching.

“Obviously what’s happening in Belarus is very dear to my heart,” she said. “At this point, what is it going to do? I feel like sport has always been a celebration in our country.

“There was no sport for a really long time,” she added. “Having two Belarusian women playing on the biggest stages, I think it’s really important. I hope people have enjoyed our matches and will continue to watch.”

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