For weeks this past spring, the leaders of the U.S. Tennis Association debated whether to allow Russian and Belarusian players to participate in the U.S. Open in New York City.
The discussions were intense and emotional, USTA executives said. There was serious consideration given to following Wimbledon’s lead and prohibiting Russians and Belarusians, including Daniil Medvedev, reigning U.S. Open men’s singles champion, who is from Russia, from playing. Ultimately, though, the leaders decided to let them play, in part because they did not have the same pressure from the U.S. government to make a move as Wimbledon’s leaders had from the British government.
There was another reason.
Supporters of allowing the Russians and Belarusians to play argued that the U.S. Open could provide a significant opportunity for uniting players and organizing the sport’s largest fundraising effort to support Ukraine. With the proper cajoling, perhaps a Russian or a Belarusian might be persuaded to participate.
On Thursday, Stacey Allaster, U.S. Open tournament director, called Victoria Azarenka, former world No. 1 from Belarus, and asked her to participate in a fundraising exhibition match Aug. 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day, at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center that will kick off a campaign that will deliver at least $2 million to relief efforts in Ukraine.
“It was a quick response,” Allaster said of her conversation with Azarenka, 33, whom she has known for more than 15 years. “She said, ‘This is a player choice, and I want to play.’ ”
Whether she or any other players from Russia or Belarus will ultimately take the court for the exhibition is not clear. Through a spokesperson for the WTA Tour, Azarenka declined to be interviewed for this article. The spokesperson, Amy Binder, referred a request to confirm Azarenka’s participation in the exhibition to Azarenka’s agent, Marijn Bal, who did not respond to an email.
For Azarenka, the decision to participate in an event supporting Ukraine is not a small one. Although she now largely lives in the United States, for years, she had a friendly relationship with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who has ruled the country since 1994 and has appeared with Azarenka on multiple occasions.
Azarenka, who has been a member of the WTA Players’ Council during her career, has said little about the war but has been outspoken in her criticism of Wimbledon for prohibiting her and the other players from Russia and Belarus from participating. After beating Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine at the Citi Open in Washington last week, Azarenka told Tennis.com that Wimbledon was “a big opportunity to show how sports can unite.” She added: “I think we missed that opportunity, but I hope we can still show it.”
Allaster said she was in the process of reaching out to those players and their representatives, as well as players from Ukraine whom the tournament would like to have on the court as well. Players from those countries who have relatives there have had to be careful with their comments, although a few have expressed empathy with the victims of the Russian invasion.
Days before the Russian invasion began in late February, Andrey Rublev of Russia had scrawled “No War Please” on the lens of a television camera after a match. Rublev, 24, ranked eighth in men’s singles, also offered to donate all of his prize money to relief efforts in Ukraine in exchange for permission to play at Wimbledon.
Last month, Daria Kasatkina, 25, Russia’s highest-ranked women’s singles player, became the first Russian in tennis to openly criticize the war, a move that could land her in trouble with her home country.
Speaking with Russian blogger Vitya Kravchenko in Barcelona, Spain, Kasatkina described the war as “a full-blown nightmare” and said the end of the war was what she wanted most right now. Kasatkina, who goes by Dasha, said she wanted to train with and play against players “who don’t have to worry about being bombed,” according to the subtitles of the video, which circulated on Twitter.
She expressed empathy for Ukrainian players who had been forced to leave their homes and search for tennis academies in Western Europe in order to train. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to have no home,” she said. Rublev appeared with Kasatkina during much of the interview and said he agreed with her.
Allaster, who has spent three decades working at every level of professional tennis, said the USTA ultimately decided that it did not want to hold athletes responsible for the actions of their governments and leaders. The association, however, wanted to use the tournament to raise awareness of the continuing struggles in Ukraine.
“You turn on the news now and the war is the fifth or sixth story sometimes,” she said.
As part of its campaign, the USTA will donate at least $2 million to GlobalGiving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. It also plans to help raise money throughout the tournament on telecasts and the tournament website.
Active players who have committed to participating in the exhibition include Rafael Nadal, Coco Gauff, Carlos Alcaraz, Taylor Fritz, Amanda Anisimova, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Iga Swiatek and Matteo Berrettini. So has John McEnroe, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and television commentator who grew up in Queens, just a few miles from Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The USTA is also working to line up appearances from celebrities: The organization hopes to land Vladyslav Buialskyi, a Ukrainian citizen who sings with the Metropolitan Opera.
Proceeds will go to the Tennis Plays for Peace initiative, a partnership of the seven organizations that oversee the sport. The initiative has raised and donated more than $1 million. In addition, the men’s and women’s tours have set aside more than $500,000 collectively for grants and interest-free loans to players from Ukraine. The USTA has raised $250,000 for Ukraine.
Like other international sports and leagues, tennis has wrestled for months with how to react to the Russian invasion.
In the days after the attack, the seven organizations — the ITF, the men’s and women’s professional tours, and the four Grand Slam tournament organizers — agreed to bar Russian and Belarusian teams from competitions and prohibit players from those countries from playing under their flags.
Russians competed in top tournaments in the United States in Miami Gardens, Florida, and Indian Wells, California, just as Russian athletes in other sports continued to compete for their North American clubs.
The arrangement has caused strain in the locker rooms and other common spaces at tournaments. Players from Ukraine, including Yastremska and Lesia Tsurenko, have spoken about their discomfort with being around Russian and Belarusian players, some of whom, they assume, support Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We know how popular he is in their country,” Tsurenko said of Putin earlier this year.
Then, in April, Britain’s Parliament directed the All England Club, which organizes Wimbledon, and the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees several other tournaments in Britain, to prohibit players from Russia and Belarus from participating in the grass-court events there in June and July. The club and the association followed suit, prompting the tennis tours to withhold rankings points from Wimbledon and threaten penalties against the other tournaments.
Russian players expressed frustration. The tournament went on without them, including Medvedev, now the world’s top-ranked men’s singles player.
Then, in a twist of further complexity, as Russia stepped up its siege of eastern Ukraine, Elena Rybakina, who was born and raised in Russia, won the Wimbledon women’s singles championship. Rybakina began representing Kazakhstan four years ago after the former Soviet republic offered to finance her development, highlighting the fruitlessness of barring players based on their nationality. Like all the players from Russia and Belarus whose families still live in those countries, Rybakina was careful to avoid any discussion of the war.
Rublev, Kasatkina and other top Russians and Belarusians, including Azarenka, all played in tournaments in the United States last week.
Just as in the spring, their matches have been largely without incident and the players have largely limited their post-match comments to tennis and dodged questions about the victims of the invasion or their sentiments about the leaders of their countries.
“We don’t want to put undue pressure on any athlete,” Allaster said. “We are going to respect and support any player’s decision.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.