Before Roland-Garros which begins on Sunday, the Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko, 33 years old and 63rd in the world, called on her compatriots to “beat on all sports grounds” their Russian and Belarusian opponents.
“The message before the French Open that I send to all the other athletes is always the same: we must go there and beat them on all grounds”, explains to AFP the player who rose during her career up to No. 23 in the world and won four WTA tournaments.
“It would make no sense for Ukrainian athletes to give up. What image would we send back?” she continues.
Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, the Ukrainian N.3 also regrets the lack of support shown to it by its Russian and Belarusian rivals, even if some “were very good friends” before.
“Only one person came to talk to me directly on the first day of the war, she says. “This person had tears in his eyes to see such a terrible thing happen,” she recalls.
“We suffer even more” –
“Today, no player (Russian or Belarusian) talks to me anymore. I don’t feel sympathy for any of them,” she said. “All I can say is that if they suffer, we suffer even more.”
“There are many ways to express disapproval (of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). You can change your nationality, or leave your country with your family if you are afraid,” Tsurenko said.
She also denounces the attitude of the world tennis authorities with regard to Russian and Belarusian players, embodied according to her by the volte-face of Steve Simon, the boss of the WTA, the women’s circuit.
“A year ago, Steve Simon told us that if a player showed her support for the war, she would be banned. A year later, it’s as if this same Steve Simon said + we can support the war +”.
And Tsurenko to recall that if she withdrew in March before facing Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka in Indian Wells (United States), it was because she feared being instrumentalized.
“I just thought that if I played this game on center court, then people like Simon would say in meetings between top sports executives, ‘Look, they’re playing against each other and it’s going well.’
– Tennis as leverage
While the question of the reintegration of Russians and Belarusians, banned from major world sporting events except in a few sports including tennis, arises in particular from the perspective of the Paris 2024 Olympics, Tsurenko attacked the International Olympic Committee ( CIO) who recommends their reinstatement under a neutral banner and on an individual basis.
“I have the impression that the IOC uses tennis as a lever (…) to be able to say that in this sport everything is going well, we play against each other and that’s not a problem, and serve as an example for the Olympic Games”.
“But it’s a problem. It’s very hard for Ukrainians to play against Russians and Belarusians, for a whole host of reasons!”, She exclaims.
“The WTA and the IOC look at sport only from the perspective of Russian and Belarusian human rights and ignore violations of the rights of Ukrainians.”
Tsurenko has not returned to her country since her invasion began. His mother Larisa and sister Oksana stayed there.
“She gets up every night to go to a safe place,” she says of her sister who lives in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital where Tsurenko dreams of returning soon: “It’s my city and the place I love by above all”.