Azarenka to Ukrainian players: “I’ve had a clear message from the beginning: I’m here to try to help, which I have done a lot”

The former world No 1 said she’s been working behind the scenes to try to help any player who’s been affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine

Victoria Azarenka, 2022 Victoria Azarenka, 2022 | © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka said on Thursday that she is “here to help” anyone who may be struggling as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war that has affected tennis in many ways.

The Belarusian was not allowed to participate in the pre-US Open Tennis Plays for Peace charity event, in part because of complaints by Ukrainian players.

At the US Open on Thursday, Azarenka played – and beat – Marta Kostyuk, one of the most outspoken of the Ukrainian players, who has stated that Azarenka, and the WTA Tour in general should have been more vocal in their opposition to the war. Azarenka has consistently called for peace and an end to the war but, like most athletes, has not been openly critical of Russia or Belarus, who facilitated the invasion by allowing troops to enter Ukraine through their country.

The pair did not shake hands at the end, merely tapping racquets instead.

While the ATP and WTA Tours have allowed Russian and Belarusian players to continue to enter tournaments as individuals, their nationality is not used in official results or reports. Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian from this year’s Championships, which resulted in the Tours removing ranking points.

Ukrainian players, meanwhile, have continued to try to focus on tennis, despite all the problems in their homeland, with many having family members affected by the war.

It was not a surprise – Kostyuk had texted Azarenka the night before to explain why she did not want to shake hands – and after her win, Azarenka explained what was happening, from her point of view, and expanded on her own actions since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in March. Here is what she said.

Q. How did you feel when you realised she wasn’t going to shake your hand? Were you expecting that, or were you surprised?

VICTORIA AZARENKA: Well, I wasn’t surprised. I don’t believe that making a big deal out of it is important. I always shake hands with my opponents. I had the same situation with Yastremska in Washington. It is what it is. I just move on. I cannot force anybody to shake my hand. It’s their decision.

How did it make me feel? It’s not the most important thing in the world right now.

Q. Marta seemed particularly upset you haven’t reached out to her in the last couple months. Is that something you would like to do and why maybe you haven’t?

VICTORIA AZARENKA: “Well, I’ve offered many times through WTA, because I believe that there is a sort of sensitivity. I’ve been told that that’s not a good time. I don’t have, or I never had a close relationship with Marta. I obviously knew who she is, but I’ve never practiced with her. I’ve never really had conversation with her.

“So in March when everything happened, I have reached out to all the players that I personally know and I still have a good relationship with – I’m talking about Ukrainian players, of course – and, I don’t feel that forcing myself to speak to somebody who maybe doesn’t want to speak to me for different reasons is the right approach. But I offered.

If Marta wants to speak with me, like she texted me yesterday, I replied. I’m open to any time to listen, to try to understand, to sympathize.

Victoria Azarenka

“I feel like I’ve had a very clear message from the beginning, is that I’m here to try to help, which I have done a lot. Maybe not something that people see. And that’s not what I do it for. I do it for people who in need, juniors who need clothes, other people who need money or other people who needed transportation or whatever. That’s what is important to me, to help people are in need.

“If Marta wants to speak with me, like she texted me yesterday, I replied. I’m open to any time to listen, to try to understand, to sympathize. I believe that empathy in the moment like this is really important, which has, again, been my clear message in the beginning.

“I’m going to stand by that, because what’s happening in the world is very difficult right now, but we shouldn’t forget that we are all human and we should treat each other that way.”

Victoria Azarenka, US Open 2022
Victoria Azarenka, US Open 2022 | © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Q. About the text that she sent you yesterday, she said she wanted to kind of give you a heads-up about the handshake at the net. She wanted to explain to you why she made that decision. I just wondered, she also spoke about your role on the player council is part of why she spoke out last week and how she thinks you should be more vocal about this issue. I just wanted your reaction to that.

VICTORIA AZARENKA: “My role on the player council, I think I don’t want to speak to myself but you can ask every member of the player council and a member of WTA who see me in that player council role and what I stand for and what I do for players.

“So I don’t need to sit here and pat myself on the back. I know very clearly of my actions. I don’t think that, with all due respect, I don’t think she has any idea of what I do on the player council because she’s not there.

“So if anybody, as I said, if anybody wants to talk to me, I’m always available to players. Because it’s part of my job, player council, to listen to feedback of players, and Marta is no different for me.

“To me, I look at her as a tennis player, as a colleague. I know she’s going through a lot of difficult situations. It’s not easy to handle.

“From my perspective, I wish she had somebody who guide her a little bit better through this difficult time. So, here is going to be more sympathy from others. I feel like when you’re trying to, I don’t know, react, it’s not always received that well.

I don’t play political games, I don’t play media games, that’s not what I’m here for. I’m very direct person.

Victoria Azarenka

“So I’m always open to listen. I can’t force people to do something they don’t want to do. But any time, she has my number, as you know, she texted me, and all others, as well.

“Whatever I can do to help people, I don’t play political games, I don’t play media games, that’s not what I’m here for. I’m very direct person. I mean, many of you know me for many years. I don’t go around the corners. I go straight to the person.

“The Twitter is not a place for discussion. The place for discussion is face to face, and if anybody who knows me outside of the court, that’s what I’m about. I talk with people, not through the phone or through the text, face to face.

“As I said, I’m just going to bring it out there. If it’s needed to be said in the media, that I’m very open to do whatever is necessary. Because I think, as I said, in these type of moments, it’s important to be human and be empathetic to others. What people are going through you never know, sometimes you cannot see it.”

Azarenka plays Petra Martic in the third round on Saturday.

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