Aryna Sabalenka, WTA and Steve Simon slammed as tension in tennis continues to escalate

Shahida Jacobs
Aryna Sabalenka reacts during a match

Aryna Sabalenka, the WTA and WTA CEO Steve Simon have come under fire over their responses to recent criticism of tennis’ superficial support to Ukrainians following Russia’s invasion of their country.

Moscow launched what it called a “special military operation” against the Ukraine in February last year and tennis authorities took measures to assist players who have been affected by the invasion.

Unlike other sporting codes that banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing, tennis players were allowed to compete as neutrals with the flags and anthems of the two countries banned.

Ukrainian players were quite critical of tennis’ neutral approach and things escalated just over a fortnight ago when Lesia Tsurenko withdrew from her match against Sabalenka at the Indian Wells Open.

Tsurenko later revealed she suffered a “panic attack” following talks with Simon, saying she was “absolutely shocked” by the WTA chief’s answers during discussion about tennis’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Simon, though, insisted that the WTA is doing all it can to help Ukrainians while Sabalenka later revealed that she has been on the receiving end of “hate” in the locker room due to her nationality while some girls have been “really aggressive against us”.

She added: “I was really struggling with that because I really felt bad, like I did something and it’s still not so good in the locker room with some of the Ukrainian girls. But then I realised that it’s not my fault and I did nothing bad to them. And I’m pretty sure that the rest of the Russian and Belarusian athletes did nothing to Ukrainians.

“I just realised that this is all emotions and I just need to like ignore it and focus on myself with understanding that I did nothing bad. And I cannot control emotions of others.”

READ MORE: Aryna Sabalenka opens up about ‘hate’ in WTA locker room

However, Tsurenko’s coach Nikita Vlasov has blasted Sabalenka over her response to what happened to her colleague while he also took aim at the WTA and Simon during an interview with a Ukrainian tennis publication.

“If Sabalenka thinks the WTA does its job by protecting aggressor countries that support armed aggression against our country, then yes… they are super pros,” he told Ukrainian Tennis blog

“Something that surprised me the most was that while addressing this terrible situation with Tsurenko, there were no words from Sabalenka about wishing Lesia well or a speedy recovery.

“She didn’t condemn Simon’s words by any means and the whole situation either. Instead in her comment she did the same trick as the Russian propaganda did at the beginning of the war, when the territory of Belarus was used to shell Kyiv.

“Back then Russians and Belarusians said that it was the Ukrainians who were bombing their capital. It’s the same here… ‘Tsurenko’s coach puts pressure on Tsurenko’… they didn’t come up with anything new.

“It’s just an attempt to shift the focus from the situation, nothing else. And I will gladly dive into the discussion and give you more answers, but only after the current situation is resolved.

“The point I agree with Aryna is that the problem is much bigger than a panic attack because a panic attack is the consequence of – and this what we still should figure out – the actions of a specific person or even WTA.

“Because when the head of the organisation declares that to be surrounded by people who support the invasion of your country, – and murder, rape, looting and kidnapping which come with it – is fine, and such people simply have their opinion and they should not be punished for that… And this what the WTA policy is all about and they will stick to it. Then sure, the problem is much bigger than a panic attack.”

READ MORE: WTA accused of ignoring request for meeting with Ukrainian players – ‘Just silence’