Miami Open players say Russia-Ukraine war has led to ‘hate’ and tension in locker room

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — It was a picture-perfect Tuesday at the Miami Open. The sun was shining. The women’s main draw got underway. Fans sampled international cuisine and took selfies with some of their favorite players on the practice courts.

But the mood got serious for a while inside Hard Rock Stadium, as reporters attending Media Day asked Belarusian players Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka about tensions on tour between Ukrainian, Russian and Belarus players.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Wimbledon ban of Russian and Belarusian players last summer, has led to some strained locker room relationships. The WTA and ATP tours barred players from Russia and Belarus from competing under their flags, so they have been competing with no national designation.

World No. 2 Sabalenka, who lost Sunday to Elena Ryabakina of Kazakhstan in the final at Indian Wells, Calif., said of the ongoing geopolitical strain: “It was really, really tough for me because I’ve never faced that much hate in the locker room.

“Of course, there are a lot of haters on Instagram when you’re losing the matches, but in the locker room, I’ve never faced that. It was really tough for me to understand that there’s so many people who really hate me for no reason, like no reason. I mean, like I did nothing.”

She said during the Indian Wells tournament that she had an uncomfortable confrontation with Nikita Vlasov, the coach of Ukrainian player Lesia Tsurenko. Tsurenko was due to play Sabalenka but withdrew before their match. Tsurenko said she had a panic attack after a conversation about the war with a tennis official.

“I had some, not like fights, but I had some weird conversations with, not the girls, but with members of their team,” Sabalenka said. “It was really, it was tough. It was tough period. But now it’s getting better.”

Sabalenka has been learning to navigate the situation better, she said.

“At the beginning, 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,” she said. “But then I realized 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 realized that this is all emotions and I just need to like ignore it and focus on myself with understanding that I did nothing bad. I cannot control emotions of others.”

Sabalenka first said “everyone’s just ignoring each other,” but then corrected herself.

“Not everyone actually,” she said. “I’m still talking to some of the Ukrainians, but there are some of the girls who are like really aggressive against us. So, I’m just staying away from that.”

Polish world No. 1 one Iga Swiatek, whose country borders Ukraine and has taken in many refugees, has criticized the WTA for not doing enough to support Ukrainian players.

Azarenka, a Belarusian player who is a member of the WTA Players Council, disagreed with Swiatek.

“Obviously there are certain players that have different feelings and behaviors. Overall, I don’t necessarily share the same opinion as Iga does,” Azarenka said. “I would encourage her to look at the things that have been done before she makes comments.

“As a player council (member) I am happy to provide all those facts that have been done. And I think that would be a more appropriate way to have that conversation.”

The rest of the Media Day had a much lighter tone.

Top ranked defending men’s Miami Open champion Carlos Alcaraz discussed his first tattoo, which he got on his left forearm in December. It says “CCC”, which means (in Spanish) “Cabaza, Corazon, Coraje” (translation: head, heart, courage). It is in honor of his grandfather, who always offered him that advice during matches.

Coco Gauff revealed that she and her family were attending the World Baseball Classic between Team USA and Japan Tuesday night at loanDepot Park in Miami. Her younger brother is a high school baseball player and highly-ranked recruit. He plays catcher.

“I hear this is going to be one of the most watched baseball games, so I’m super excited,” she said. “Obviously, cheering for the U.S., but Shohei Ohtani is a New Balance athlete, so I’ll be rooting for him to have a good game, but not good enough where he beats us.”

And third-ranked Jessica Pegula of the United States, daughter of Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim, said she feels at home this week. She lives and trains in Boca Raton, and has spent many Sundays watching the Bills play the Dolphins from the visiting owners’ suite at Hard Rock Stadium.

“It’s such a unique situation, such a cool story that I get to embrace,” Pegula said of her football/tennis crossover. “It’s fun when I get to come here to watch a football team play and then get to come back to play a tennis match. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. I got a suite as a seeded player, so wondering if it will be near the Bills’ suite. I’ve come to more games here than any stadium but the Bills stadium.”

Among the players who advanced Tuesday were American qualifier Chistopher Eubanks, who beat Lukas Klein of Slovakia 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (4), and American Claire Liu, who advanced when Czech player Katerina Siniakova retired.