Victoria Azarenka dropped from Ukraine aid event before US Open
By Matthew Futterman
The U.S. Open’s attempt to show that sports could help build a bridge to peace in a time of war suffered a major blow this week when the tournament was forced to drop Victoria Azarenka of Belarus from participating in an exhibition to raise money for relief efforts in Ukraine just hours before its start.
The move came Wednesday after players from Ukraine complained about Azarenka’s participation in the Tennis Plays for Peace Exhibition set for Wednesday night at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open will begin next week.
“In the last 24 hours, after careful consideration and dialogue with all parties involved, Victoria Azarenka will not be participating in our Tennis Plays for Peace Exhibition this evening,” the United States Tennis Association announced in a statement. “Vika is a strong player leader, and we appreciate her willingness to participate. Given the sensitivities to Ukrainian players, and the ongoing conflict, we believe this is the right course of action for us.”
Azarenka could not immediately be reached for comment.
The exhibition was to include a roster of some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Rafael Nadal, Coco Gauff, Iga Swiatek and John McEnroe. It took place on Ukraine’s Independence Day and the six-month anniversary of a war that seemingly has no end in sight.
When the exhibition was announced earlier this month, Azarenka’s planned participation was seen as a significant statement. An overwhelming majority of athletes from Russia and Belarus, which has served as a staging ground for the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has resisted speaking out against the war or expressing any sympathy for victims in Ukraine for a variety of reasons. Those can include support for the war or fear for their safety or that of their relatives who still live in their countries even if the players do not.
Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Open tournament director, said she had called Azarenka, the former world No. 1, and asked her to participate in the event, which is kicking off a $2 million fundraising campaign, when it was still in its planning stages. “It was a quick response,” Allaster said of her conversation with Azarenka, 33, whom she has known for more than 15 years. “She said, ‘This is a player choice, and I want to play.’”
Azarenka, a leader in the WTA, had been highly critical of Wimbledon and Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, which in April barred players from Russia and Belarus from playing in the annual tournaments in England earlier this year.
Azarenka now largely lives in the United States but for years had a friendly relationship with President Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and has appeared with Azarenka on multiple occasions.
During the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, Azarenka told Tennis.com that Wimbledon was “a big opportunity to show how sports can unite.”
“I think we missed that opportunity, but I hope we can still show it,” she said.
But with their country under attack and their relatives’ lives in danger, players from Ukraine are not feeling any desire to show a sense of unity with players from Russia and Belarus.
The International Tennis Federation, the men’s and women’s professional tours and the other three Grand Slam tournaments have barred Russian and Belarusian teams from competitions and prohibit players from those countries from playing under their flags.
But the locker rooms and other common spaces at tournaments continue to be places of tension. Players from Ukraine, including Dayana Yastremska and Lesia Tsurenko, have spoken about their discomfort with being around Russian and Belarusian players, some of whom, they assume, support Putin. They have said Russian players have made little effort to reach out to them to express empathy for what they are experiencing.