The women played for an hour and a half. On match point, Kostyuk’s forehand went into the net, sending Azarenka to the third round. The 33-year-old screamed in celebration, pumping her clenched fists as the crowd at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens cheered. Kostyuk, meanwhile, approached the net with the racket raised. The two then quickly struck rackets before turning to shake the chair umpire’s hand.
The moment lasted less than five seconds, but the tension carried over into post-match press conferences.
“It was just my choice,” Kostyuk said of skipping the handshake, adding: “We had a great match, don’t get me wrong. She’s a great competitor, I respect her as an athlete, but that has nothing to do with her as a person.”
Kostyuk said that she cannot support tennis players who have not publicly condemned the war in Ukraine, which has killed more than 5,500 civilians and forced more than 7 million people from their homes since the February invasion by Russia, according to the United Nations.
Belarus, where Azarenka is from, was one of Russia most faithful allies in his incursion against Ukraine. Although it was not directly involved in the conflict, Belarus allowed Russian forces to stage troops and equipment there. The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Belarus, and Ukraine has accused Russia of this launching missiles from there.
In response to the attack, Russian and Belarusian players were forbidden from the Wimbledon tennis tournament earlier this year. At the US Openthey are allowed to play – but only if their flags and countries are not listed.
The war prompted tennis players from around the world to speak out. In February, Russian player Andrey Rublev scribbled “No War Please” on camera lens after winning their semi-final match in Dubai. Daria Kasatkina, the highest-ranked Russian female player, was an outspoken critic of what she called an “absolute nightmare.” In March, Azarenka said “I hope and wish for peace and an end to the war” in a statement posted to Twitter.
However, Kostyuk – one of the most vocal Ukrainian players – challenged Belarusian and Russian athletes to do more to publicly condemn their countries’ leaders. In April, she was part of a a group calling on the sport’s governing organizations to ask Russian and Belarusian players if they supported the war. If they did not denounce the conflict, the group requested that the athletes be banned from international events.
“As athletes we live life in the public eye and therefore have an enormous responsibility,” the group wrote, adding that “there comes a time when silence is betrayal, and that time is now.”
This week, Kostyuk told reporters she texted Azarenka before the match to say she shouldn’t expect a handshake.
“I really wanted to warn her that I wasn’t going to shake her hand because she never came to me, at least in person, and didn’t tell me her opinion,” Kostyuk said, adding that Azarenka didn’t use her. role in the Women’s Tennis Association players’ council to speak out against the war.
Azarenka, however, rejected those claims in a press conference: “I feel like I had a very clear message from the beginning that I’m here to try to help, which I’ve done a lot. Maybe not something people see. And that’s not why I do it. I do it for people who need it.”
The Belarusian also said that she would be “open at any time to listen, try to understand, sympathize” with Kostyuk. At the same time, she expressed confusion as to why she was removed from last week’s Tennis Plays for Peace exhibition and fundraiser for Ukraine. Although she had to participate, Azarenka was later booted after Ukrainian players complained.
“I thought this was a gesture that really shows commitment,” Azarenka said of her plans to attend the event. “I’m not sure why it wasn’t taken that way.”
🎙️ @vika7 full answer about contacting 🇺🇦 players through WTA, what she was told and her relationships with them
“I’m here to try to help, which I’ve done a lot, maybe not something people see. I do it for young people who need clothes, other people who need money/transportation.” pic.twitter.com/gyxXOrUIzr
– Jay (@theoverrule) 1 September 2022
While shaking hands is not mandatory, it is rare for players not to participate in the ritual, which is seen as a sign of respect. Tennis journalist Steve Tignor once described the moment as “the emotional core of any match.”
In 2013, Azarenka told USA Today it was important for players to show “that mutual respect for each other” by shaking hands. At the time she said she would never skip the ritual.
“But that never happened to me. Oh no no! And I would never do that … to my opponent,” she said.
Almost 10 years later, war would change that.
Julian Mark contributed to this report.