Russia’s war against Ukraine spilled over into a cold war on the tennis court between Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk and Victoria Azarenka.
Kostyuk has been a vocal critic of Azarenka, first declining the USTA’s Ukrainian charity invitation due to Azarenka’s expected attendance. And on Thursday, she refused to shake hands after Azarenka’s 6-2, 6-3 US Open second-round win.
“I had the same situation with [Ukrainian Dayana] Yastremska in Washington. It is what it is. I’m just moving forward,” said the 32-year-old Azarenka with a shrug. “I can’t force someone 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.”
Azarenka is from Belarus, not Russia; but the borderless country borders Ukraine and served as a station for Russian troops in the months before the invasion.
“It was just my choice,” Kostyuk was quoted as saying in the Guardian. “I don’t know any person who has condemned the war publicly, and the actions of their government, so I don’t feel I can support this. 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.”
There has been a frost between the pair since the start of hostilities, with Kostyuk ripping Azarenka. The former World No. 1 let loose with a fist pump and a loud scream to the heavens after Thursday’s victory on Court 17, where her Ukrainian foe avoids the handshake and never even deigns to make eye contact, offering only a cold racket instead.
Kostyuk – a 20-year-old from Kyiv – texted Azarenka on Wednesday to explain her position, and was apparently upset that the veteran had not contacted her for months.
“I have bid many times through WTA, because I believe there is some sensitivity. I was told that was not a good time,” Azarenka said. “In March, when everything happened, I contacted all the players that I know personally and with whom I still have a good relationship – I’m talking about Ukrainian players, of course – and I don’t feel that it forces me to talk to them. someone who doesn’t want to talk to me for different reasons is the right approach. But I offered.
“I had a very clear message from the beginning, is that I’m here to try to help, which I did a lot. Maybe not something people see. And that’s not why I do it; I do it for people in need, young people who need clothes, other people who need money or who need transport or whatever. That’s what’s important to me, helping people in need. If Marta wants to talk to me, as she texted me, I answered. I am open at any time to listen, to try to understand, to sympathize.”
Kostyuk criticized Azarenka being included in the Tennis Plays for Peace exhibition to raise money for Ukraine, saying “There was no open help from her in our direction. She did not communicate with me.”
Those comments led to Azarenka not participating in the charity event even though she left Belarus years ago and lives in Boca Raton (Fla.). But she showed up on Thursday, badly outperforming Kostyuk. The Ukrainian won just two of nine break points, committed 31 unforced errors and left without a word to Azarenka.
“I’m always open to listen. I can’t force people to do something they don’t want to do,” Azarenka said. “But anytime, she has my number. She texted me. And everyone else, too. 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 am a very direct person.
“I don’t cut corners. I go straight to the person. Twitter is not a place for discussion. The place for discussion is face-to-face. That’s what I’m about. I talk to people, not on the phone or by text; face to face.”