As her father and grandfather remained trapped in Kyiv with war raging around them, Ukrainian tennis star Marta Kostyuk was making headlines, taking down Russian competitor Varvara Gracheva in the finals of the ATX Open on Sunday. After winning the match in two sets (6-3, 7-5), Kostyuk shook the umpire’s hand but refused to acknowledge her opponent in any way. The reason is obvious.
Kostyuk made it clear that this had nothing to do with professional respect. “We had a great match, don’t get me wrong,” said Kostyuk. “She’s a great competitor, I respect her as an athlete, but that has nothing to do with her as a human being.” However, the burden of representing a country under such dire circumstances is hard to carry. As Kostyuk explained, “I am more stressed being outside and looking in, than actually being [in Ukraine].”
This is Kostyuk’s right. While some people may claim that Kostyuk is displaying poor sportsmanship by refusing to separate the players from their nationality, Kostyuk claims she’d be willing to shake their hands if they would come out publicly against the invasion of her home country, not just the war. Most Russian and Belarusian tennis players haven’t though.
This isn’t the first time Kostyuk has refused to shake hands with players of Russian or Belarusian descent. After losing to former world number one Victoria Azarenka in the US Open last September, Kostyuk generated headlines by refusing to acknowledge her opponent after the match.
The removal of Russian and Belarusian players has been a hot debate in the tennis world as of late. Different organizations have different rules regarding their eligibility. While the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) allows players from both countries to compete, claiming that players should not be punished by the deeds of their countries, individual tournaments like Wimbledon have banned players from both countries until the conflict ends, citing their responsibility to limit Russia’s global influence. This was the first time since World War II, when German and Japanese players were banned from competitions, that Wimbledon had placed a ban on athletes from specific countries. Other tournaments have allowed players to play without displaying any form of support for their country, even something as small as displaying their nation’s flag on their outfits.
Is it right for these tournaments to ban athletes of specific nationalities though? Stephane Gurov, CEO of Top Five Management, a sports management company, represents both Ukrainian and Russian tennis players — including Gracheva — and understands that the national conflict has created tension in locker rooms, much like it has in soccer, as both sports partake in constant international matches. He claims that he has to stand behind his athletes regardless of politics and that he would like to see them play. Gracheva’s coach, Jean-Rene Lisnard, offered much more direct thoughts: “She’s trying to do a job as good as she can, you know? It’s just a shame for these players to be linked to that, you know? If we would have penalized every American players or French players or any country every time there’s a war, some players would never play.” Lisnard reiterated that Gracheva is only 21 years old and left Russia for France over five years ago, having played no part in the invasion that started in 2022.
Kostyuk’s win on Sunday propelled her to No. 40 in the WTA rankings. She dedicated her win at the ATX Open “to Ukraine and to all the people that are fighting and dying right now.” She is trying to use her platform to end a war that has taken thousands of innocent lives, and you can’t blame her for that. Several Russian tennis players have criticized their country’s invasion of Ukraine on both the men’s and women’s sides, including Daria Kasatkina, Andrey Rublev, Daniil Medvedev, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Any Russian athlete yet to stand against the invasion is doing so out of personal choice, and that makes Kostyuk’s dismissal of those players all the more understandable.