A politically charged match between Ukrainian and Belarusian tennis players at Wimbledon on Sunday ended with booing from the crowd after those watching appeared to misinterpret events on the court.
Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina beat Belarus’s Victoria Azarenka 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (11/9) after two hours and 46 minutes of thrilling shot making on Centre Court to set up a quarter-final clash with the world’s number one female tennis champion, Poland’s Iga Swiatek.
At the end of the match, Azarenka gestured towards Svitolina with her racquet but didn’t go in for the traditional handshake, prompting loud boos from the crowd.
Doesn’t that seem a bit rude of Azarenka?
Not really, there wasn’t much point – Svitolina and her fellow Ukrainian players have made it clear that they won’t shake hands with their counterparts from Russia and Belarus due to Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Belarus is a key military ally of Moscow and militarily, Belarus is Russia’s biggest supporter having allowed both its land and airspace to be used by the Kremlin’s forces.
Despite resisting pressure thus far from Putin to send troops into Ukraine, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has had no qualms about the thousands of missiles launched from his territory toward Ukraine’s cities.
Lukashenko has little choice in the matter given he’s only still in power because Russia helped him quash a popular uprising after a contested election in 2020.
The crowd was booing Azarenka because she’s Belarusian?
Not quite – Azarenka, knowing Svitolina’s stance already, knew she wouldn’t get a handshake so didn’t even try. It appears the crowd misread this as Azarenka snubbing Svitolina.
Azarenka left the court looking bemused and shaking her head after the crowd suddenly turned hostile towards her.
“It wasn't fair. It is what it is. What can I do?” said Azarenka after the match. “I haven't done anything wrong, but I can't control the crowd. I'm not sure that a lot of people understood what was happening.
“But if people are going to be focusing only on handshakes or a quite drunk crowd booing in the end, that's a shame.
“I’ve known Elina for a very long time. I’ve always had a good relationship with her. And the circumstances, it is what it is, and that’s it.”
Has Svitolina commented?
Svitolina was also upset at the crowd’s reaction, saying that as she’s already made her stance clear and those watching the match should know what to expect.
And it’s not the first time this has happened – Svitolina and Marta Kostyuk were jeered by the Paris crowd for their stance after losing to Belarusian world number two Aryna Sabalenka.
At the US Open last year, Kostyuk offered only a racquet touch following her defeat to Azarenka.
Svitolina believes the booing could be stopped if tennis authorities issue a statement explaining the position of Ukraine players.
“It was like this for me in Paris. It was also unfair,” said Svitolina.
“I’ve already said multiple times that until Russian troops are out of Ukraine and we take back our territories, we are not going to shake hands. So, I have a clear statement.”
Despite the controversy, Svitolina described victory as the "second happiest moment" of her life after the birth of her daughter.
“I think after giving birth to our daughter this is the second-happiest moment in my life,” said Svitolina, who is married to French tennis star Gael Monfils.
“When I was down, I heard you guys cheering for me and I almost wanted to cry.”
Svitolina, a semi-finalist in 2019, was 4/7 down in the final-set tiebreak and only three points from defeat. However, she clawed her way back, and saw one match point slip away at 9/8 before sealing victory with an ace.
“I know that a lot of people back home are watching, supporting me. I feel responsibility, as well,” she added.
“When I play against Russians and Belarusians, I feel more pressure that I need to win. That’s why it means a lot to get these kinds of wins. In my own way, to bring this victory, a small victory, to Ukraine.”
Tell me more about Svitolina
Elina Svitolina, born on 12th September 1994 in Odesa, is a Ukrainian professional tennis player. She reached career-high rankings of the world’s number 3 in singles and 108 in doubles.
The first Ukrainian woman to ever break into the top 10 of the WTA singles rankings, Svitolina's athleticism and fighting qualities have earned praise from all corners.
Her parents are former athletes. Her mother Olena Svitolina is a former competitive rower and her father Mykhaylo Svitolin is a former wrestler.
As a child, Elina noticed that her brother was getting a lot of attention for playing tennis. This inspired her to take up the sport to regain her father’s attention.
She started playing at age five. Svitolina and her family moved to Kharkiv, Ukraine, businessman Yuriy Sapronov had seen her play at one of his children’s tournaments when she was 12 and was impressed.
Then when Elina was 13 Sapronov became her sponsor.
She had an immensely successful junior career, winning the 2010 French Open girls' title. She also reached the 2012 Wimbledon girls' final, where she lost to Eugenie Bouchard.
Svitolina has a multi-faceted game; she can easily switch between attack and defense. She mostly plays from the baseline and is adept at using her opponents' pace against them.
Svitolina is as comfortable hitting her backhand as she is with the forehand. She rarely ventures to the net though and is content to move the ball around from the back.
The 28-year-old only returned to the tour in April after maternity leave.
She has now reached the last eight of successive majors after also making the quarterfinals of the French Open.
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