Given the number of Russian and Ukrainian women’s professional tennis players, there have been several awkward and intense moments during press conferences in recent years over Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
The role of Belarus, whose leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is extremely friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has also complicated the way that some of the tennis players interact and are treated.
In March, Ukrainian tennis player Marta Kostyuk was booed at the French Open when she refused to shake hands with Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka following their match. Kostyuk, who has criticized the decision to allow Russian and Belarusian players to compete during the conflict in Ukraine, said she would not shake hands with players from the two countries out of respect for the Ukrainians fighting on the front lines.
Sabalenka, meanwhile, has been peppered with questions about the conflict, where she stands on issues, and what her role should be while the war rages on. For a while, she refused to publicly condemn the war, leading to a lot of criticism from other players, though she eventually did say “I don’t support war, which means I don’t support Lukashenko right now.” She eventually decided on Friday to skip her French Open post-match press conferences as a way to protect her “mental health and well-being.”
Wimbledon is underway now and the questions for Russian and Belarusian tennis players have not abated. Unfortunately, things have also gotten a bit confusing regarding which players are from which countries.
Following two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka’s 6-4 5-7 6-4 victory over China’s Yuan Yue in the first round, the tennis star was asked a question about Russia.
“What does Wimbledon mean to Russia? Is it big over there? Just in terms of the part it plays in culture,” asked a reporter at the post-match presser.
That’s where the confusion set in as Azarenka is Belarusian, not Russian.
“You do know I’m not from Russia, right?” Azarenka responded.
“Yeah. Just in terms of being on tour, at all, is that something that you have become aware of at all, if it’s significant?” the reporter followed up.
“You will have to spell it out a bit more directly to me. I’m not understanding the question,” said Azarenka.
“Just in terms of internationally, how you see Wimbledon’s culture and how big a tournament you see it as, internationally? You have obviously played in Russia in the past. How significant do you feel the tournament is?” said the journalist, who seemed to be trying to dig himself out of the hole he’d created.
“OK, so let me just clarify. You’re asking me how big do I feel that Wimbledon is on the international stage. Or what it means to me?” asked the No. 20-ranked player.
“I actually meant on the international stage and just being on tour. It’s just a question we were asking around its impact in Russia. This is the first time that Russian players are allowed here, this year,” the reporter said.
“OK. I will answer the part about the international view of Wimbledon, (though) I don’t know if I’m an expert to give you a proper opinion,” said Azarenka.
“It’s a poor question, sorry,” said the reporter.
“Yes, it is, but I’ll still answer it,” Azarenka said to end the awkward exchange. “I think on the international stage, Wimbledon is undoubtedly one of the biggest tennis events, and it’s always been. So it’s iconic. It is iconic.
“How it is in Russia? I’m not from Russia. I can’t really tell you how it feels in Russia.”
Good lord, that was awkward.
For her part, Azarenka released a statement in March 2022 saying that she was heartbroken by the “actions that have taken place” and “declare[d] her dismay and great sadness at the events” in Ukraine, adding: “I have always seen … Ukrainian and Belarusian people [and] nations … friendly and supportive of one another. It is hard to witness the violent separation that is currently taking place instead of supporting and finding compassion for each other.”