EXCLUSIVE: The Ukrainian Tennis Federation On War, Russian Players And The Olympics
Times are hard for Evgeniy Zukin but he says it is nothing compared to what is happening in his home country of Ukraine.
I spoke with Zukin via a video call from London where he is currently residing amid the Russian invasion of his homeland which began almost 14 months ago on February 24th 2022. Despite the challenging circumstances, he continues his role as the Executive Director of the Ukranian Tennis Federation (UTF). Perhaps the most notable thing about our conversation was how composed he remained throughout despite the topics discussed. You never quite know how a person from Ukraine might react when they are asked if they have any sympathy for those from Russia given the circumstances.
Throughout our 20-minute call, Zukin expressed both disappointment and understanding regarding the decision of The All England Club to permit Russian and Belarussian players to participate in Wimbledon this year.
“Nobody supported Wimbledon and the LTA in their decision to not allow them to play (in 2022). All of the tennis world left them alone. Unfortunately, they couldn’t fight on their own against the professional Tours and all the rest. It’s unfortunate but at the same time, we understand this decision.” Zukin told Ubitennis.
It is a tough time for tennis in Ukraine. Some tournaments have been given the green light to take place under special regulations which require protocols to be in place in case an air raid siren goes off. Still, they are determined to maintain their position on the tennis map with ambitions of hosting more tournaments over the coming months depending on the war.
Financially it has been tough. The only major tennis governing body to have given a fund to the UTF is the International Tennis Federation (ITF) – $100,000 in 2022 and 2023. They have also received donations from national federations with the most recent of those coming from Italy.
“We have lost all our income from sponsorships, commercial activities, licences and from players’ tournament fees etc. All of this is no longer on our balance sheet,” Zukin said.
Another challenge has emerged from the UTF’s own government. Recently the Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers, Oleh Nemchinov, announced that his athletes would not be allowed to participate in Olympic qualifying events if Russians are taking part. A total of 262 Ukrainian athletes have been killed and 363 sports facilities destroyed since the start of the war, according to the country’s sports minister Vadym Huttsait (as of April 2nd 2023).
However, enforcing such a rule in tennis would be extremely hard, as was pointed out in an open letter by the UTF. The Olympic qualification criteria set out by the ITF states players must compete in a set number of Davis Cup or Billie Jean King Cup ties unless they have an exemption. Although the vast majority of those to qualify will be based on their ranking right after the 2024 French Open. So in essence every tournament which awards ranking points is a qualifying event for players. At the Tokyo Olympics, Elina Svitolina became the first Ukrainian tennis player to win a medal of any kind after clinching bronze in the women’s singles tournament.
“Everybody knows that the Russian and Belarussian political regimes are using their players as a tool in their propaganda,” it is claimed by the UTF official.
In a wide-ranging interview, Ubitennis also spoke with Zukin about the ongoing criticism of the WTA’s handling of Ukranian players, Iga Swiatek’s vocal support for his country and potentially boycotting the Olympics.
UBITENNIS: How has the Ukrainian Tennis Federation (UTF) been coping with the ongoing war in your country?
ZUKIN: It is not easy. I am away from my home country and my home town of Kyiv. I’m working mostly from London but I do a lot of travelling to explain our (the Federation’s) position about what is going on in the tennis world with this war.
Of course, this is not easy but it is nothing compared to what our soldiers on the battlefields are feeling.
UBITENNIS: How have the Federation been able to look after their players given the circumstances? What support systems are in place?
ZUKIN: We started some national tournaments in Ukraine last December under the special regulations that have been provided by the government for organizing sporting events. There are shelters and special protocols in place in case of air raid sirens and threats. We are doing one or two national events a month and in most of the clubs the normal tennis process (is continuing).
We are talking about Kyiv and western Ukraine. Not the regions which are close to the battlefields. In the regions that are not so much affected, tennis players have the opportunity to practice, and play some club and national events. This is how it is being organised inside the country at the moment. We hope that during the summer period, we will find more suitable places to host national events.
UBITENNIS: A lot has been said by your players regarding the WTA and their current management of the ongoing war. What is your opinion about how the WTA is helping Ukranian players and should they do more?
ZUKIN: Of course, we think that the ATP and WTA could have done more to support Ukrainian players. I know our female players are not happy with the treatment the WTA is giving them. From our side, we are not happy that professional tours – both the WTA and ATP – have a firm stance on accepting Russians (on their Tour) under a neutral flag.
The thing is that this is a formality. Everybody knows that the Russian and Belarussian political regimes are using their players as a tool in their propaganda. We think this is not right whilst the war is ongoing.
UBITENNIS: So how often do you communicate with the WTA or ATP?
ZUKIN: We (the UTF) are members of the International Tennis Federation. We don’t have any links to the ATP or WTA. I’ve had one or two conversations with them but it is the players who are the members there. So it is mostly their prerogative to speak to the Tours.
UBITENNIS: One big event coming up in the UK is Wimbledon which decided this year to lift its ban on Russian and Belarussian players participating. What is your reaction to this decision?
ZUKIN: I’m sorry that the decision taken last year wasn’t prolonged this year. But we also understand that nobody supported Wimbledon and the LTA in their decision to not allow them to play. All of the tennis world left them alone. Unfortunately, they couldn’t fight on their own against the professional Tours and all the rest. It’s unfortunate but at the same time, we understand this decision.
UBITENNIS: You said nobody supports Wimbledon and the LTA within the tennis world regarding their 2022 ban. How did this make you as a Ukranian feel?
ZUKIN: We felt sorry but this is much bigger than this whole game. The main goal is to stop the war and stop the killing of people every day. We think, as every Ukranian does, that every tool needs to be used to stop the war.
UBITENNIS: One player who has spoken out about the situation is WTA world No.1 Iga Swiatek. Would you like to see more players follow her example?
ZUKIN: Of course, if there would be an agreement within the players’ council or their environment that players from Russia should be stopped from playing during the war that would help a lot. But unfortunately, people like Swiatek or Petra Kvitova are in the minority and not the majority. It is really bad that nobody cares enough about what is going on.
They (Swiatek and Kvitova) come from countries that are really close to Ukraine and they feel how it is affecting them because of the refugees and the threat from Russia if Ukraine falls. They know how it felt to live during the Soviet Union era and they have a much better feel about what is going on. We are thankful that they provided this position to the public that the war shouldn’t be normalised.
UBITENNIS: Players from Russia and Belarus argue that they shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their governments. Do you in any way have any sympathy towards the situation that they are currently in?
ZUKIN: I have sympathy towards players such as Daria Kasatkina who has openly said that she is against the war. Everybody who is trying to somehow not get involved or stay silent (about the war)… I understand that there are threats for them but these threats are nothing in comparison to what is going on in Ukraine.
UBITENNIS: Recently your federation wrote an open letter in response to calls from some cabinet ministers for Ukrainian athletes not to compete against Russian athletes in tournaments. In the world of tennis, this would be almost impossible. Have you received a response to this letter?
ZUKIN: Obviously, everybody in Ukraine is emotional and driven by hurt. Everybody has close ones and loved ones who have been killed in the war. We know this decision has been announced publically but we haven’t received any documents regarding the path to providing this. We are waiting for the next steps and are in constant talks with our government, as well as the National Olympic Committee. We have publically raised our concerns that such a move would be very bad for the sport. We can’t stop players from playing in tournaments. We need to continue competing and hopefully, we can come to a wise solution.
UBITENNIS: There have been talks about potentially boycotting the Olympics if Russia is allowed to take part, even under a neutral status. Would you support such a move?
ZUKIN: Boycotting the Olympics is something that has been widely discussed. The thing is that for tennis it is much easier to boycott the Olympics as it is one tournament. We think that in case the war isn’t going to stop, we see no chance for them to participate. The Olympics were made to stop the wars and this is another tool (boycotting) that must be used to stop the war and get Russian troops back to their territory. We are going to do everything we can for them not to participate in the Olympics in case the war goes on.
UBITENNIS: So looking ahead to the future, what is your federation’s plan for the next 6-12 months?
ZUKIN: We have the Billie Jean King Cup tie against the Czech Republic coming up which is being organised on neutral ground in Turkey. Then we are going to get ready for all the age groups’ summer cups. We are continuing to find new hosts for the national events. We are managing players individually, if they need advice or support in their life abroad as refugees. I can assure you I wake up with tennis in my head and I go to sleep with the same. A lot of work is going on but unfortunately, there are not as many people in our office as before the war. We are doing everything we can to help players, coaches and refugees to continue being in tennis.
UBITENNIS: Finally, how is the UTF managing to function financially? Are you receiving funding from elsewhere?
ZUKIN: Financial problems are something we are experiencing. We have lost all our income from sponsorships, commercial activities, licences and from players’ tournament fees etc. All of this is no longer on our balance sheet.
We have some reserves. We have been making the most of the money earned from the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup. The ITF is the only tennis organisation that has established a fund for us. One hundred thousand dollars were spent last year through this fund which was mostly on Ukrainian players’ travels and junior teams. This year this fund awarded us another $100,000.
Other donations have come from Nordic countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland at around $20,000 which haven’t been used yet.
Now we have incredible news that the Italian tennis federation has donated $170,000 from their profit from the Italian Masters.
So far nothing from these donations has gone to administration costs. It has all been given to players, teams and events. Last year we held four ITF junior tournaments in Poland and it is something we want to do to show that our Federation still exists in the tennis world and that the Ukrainian flag is flying high.
EDITOR’S NOTE: According to the latest report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 8,451 civilians have been killed and another 14,156 injured since the start of the war. This doesn’t include military deaths which one BBC report says could be in the region of over 60,000 based on information from ‘most US and European officials’, although this has not been verified.
(EXCLUSIVE) The Journalist Who Spoke To The Woman Allegedly Abused By A French Open Player
Day three of the French Open saw a former teenage prodigy register the biggest win of his life.
Thiago Seyboth Wild produced a level of tennis well beyond his current ranking of No.172 to stun Daniil Medvedev 7-6(5), 6-7(8), 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, in what was his tournament debut. The Brazilian produced 69 winners to become the lowest-ranked player to beat a second seed in the first round at Roland Garros since 1998 when Mariano Zabaleta (No.213) upset Petr Korda. It was the breakthrough Seyboth Wild had wanted for so long after a promising junior career which saw him lift the 2018 US Open boy’s trophy.
Speaking to reporters after his shock triumph, the mood in the press room was one of celebration and delight until an awkward encounter occurred between him and one journalist.
“I don’t think it’s a question you should be making to anybody. I don’t think it comes to you to decide whether it’s a place to be spoken of or not,” he replied.
The 23-year-old’s sharp response was prompted by a question regarding an allegation that he abused his former partner, Thayane Lima, physically and psychologically. These allegations first became public knowledge back in 2021 but a resolution is yet to occur, casting a dark cloud over the head of the tennis star.
Beatriz Coelho Cesarini was the person who broke the news of the domestic abuse allegations against Seyboth Wild after speaking to Lima. She is a reporter for Universo Online Sport, which is better known as UOL Esporte.
“I talked a lot with Thayane and she showed me several print screens that proved how Wild abused her,” Cesarini told Ubitennis via email. “He cursed her, forbade her to wear clothes she liked, threw her out of the apartment and assaulted her.’
“Has the tennis player ever spoken publically about the allegations?”
According to UOL, law enforcement officials in Brazil have tried to issue legal documentation to the tennis star on three different occasions but were unable to do so because he was not present at the time they visited his address. Their next goal is to do so via his lawyers.
“The defence alleges that it is because of the commitments,” Cesarini commented, “But he was also in Brazil for a long time. Justice did not find him for a year. It’s plenty of time.”
Based on her knowledge of the situation, the Brazilian Tennis Federation has never launched an investigation related to the allegations or has taken any action. Perhaps even more significant is that the rumour of Seyboth Wild launching a case against Lima for defamation of character appears to be false, according to Cesarini. Lima and her lawyer say they have never been informed or summoned by the court. Therefore, the lawyer believes that allegation to be false.
Of course, there are two sides to the story, Seyboth Wild has previously said the charges made against him are “false, fabricated and vengeful.” Perhaps he has been a victim in this case with his ex-partner wanting to get her own back for some reason. However, Cesarini has her doubts.
“Nothing plausible,” she replied when asked if Seyboth Wild could be a victim in this case. “The Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rio de Janeiro decided to file a complaint for domestic violence after analyzing a series of evidence. It is serious.”
This is not the first time that a tennis player has been accused of domestic abuse with another notable example being that of Alexander Zverev who was accused of abusing his former partner Olya Sharypova. The ATP subsequently launched a lengthy investigation centered around an incident that took place at the 2019 Shanghai Masters. Investigators also looked at purported misconduct at other locations such as Geneva (Laver Cup) and New York (where Sharypova said she tried to commit suicide by injecting herself with insulin). They concluded that there was ‘insufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of abuse.” Zverev has always denied any wrongdoing.
Seyboth Wild will play his second round match at the French Open on Thursday against Guido Pella.
(EXCLUSIVE) Ukrainian Journalist Reacts To Controversial Booing Of Marta Kostyuk At French Open
The first day of the French Open saw Aryna Sabalenka breeze into the second round but the talking point of the match occurred just seconds after it had finished.
Approaching the net her opponent, Marta Kostyuk, refused to shake hands with the world No.2. Her decision to do so was because of Sabalenka’s home country supporting Russia in their war against Ukraine. It is not the first time that a Ukranian player has done this on the Tour but the crowd reception was something that has rarely occurred before. Kostyuk was booed off the court as a result of her gesture, even though it was widely expected that she would do this before the match.
The situation adds to the frustration of Ukrainian players with some of them previously calling for tougher penalties to be implemented on Russian players due to the conflict. Something the governing bodies of tennis refused to do this as they argue that players shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their governments. The only exception was Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association who last year banned Russian and Belarussian players from their events amid fear of those athletes being used for propaganda by the Russian regime.
One of those watching Kostyuk’s match was journalist Sergey Kontorchik who is the founder of the Ukranian tennis website BTU. As somebody who follows the actions of his compatriots on the Tour every week, he admits the reception given to fans at Roland Garros to Kostyuk caught him off guard.
“This is quite surprising to me. I think Marta and our players have explained quite clearly the reasons why this is happening,” Kontorchik tells Ubitennis.
“If somebody still doesn’t understand why Ukrainian players don’t shake hands with players from countries that kill Ukrainians and wage an invasive war, they won’t understand it anymore.”
Kontorchik lives in Dnipro, a city located in the centre of the Dnipropetrovsk Region which borders Donetsk. On Friday two people were killed and 30 injured following a Russian missile strike on a outpatient clinic in Kontorchik’s city.
The situation involving Kostyuk is even more surprising given the recent support that was shown towards one of her peers, Elina Svitolina, who won the Lyon Open title on Sunday.
“Not really, maybe somewhere in smaller tournaments,” Kontorchik replied when asked if he remembers any other players from his country going through a similar scenario to that of Kostyuk.
“Even in yesterday’s final (of the Lyon Open), the public was quite on the side of the Ukranian.”
Quizzed about the incident during her press conference, Sabalenka said she understood her rival’s decision to not shake hands with her. Adding that Kostyuk shouldn’t have exited the court in the way that she did. Sabalenka has previously said players are entitled to hate her if they wanted to and has called for politics to be kept out of the sport.
“I understand why they are not shaking hands with us. I can imagine if they gonna shake hands with us, and then what’s gonna happen to them from the Ukrainian side. So I understand that. And I understand that this is not kind of like personally, you know,” she said.
“I think she didn’t deserve to leave the court that way.”
Sabalenka also adds that she believes that ‘normal people’ would not support the ongoing war. This a rare statement from an athlete from either Russia or Belarus to make about the current situation.
“I said it many, many times: Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody, normal people will never support it.” She said.
“Of course, we don’t support war. If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it’s not in our hands.”
However, that comment has been met with scepticism from Kostyuk who has publically called for the Australian Open champion to clarify her view about who she backs in the war and why.
“She never says that she personally doesn’t support this war,” Kostyuk replied during her press conference.
“I feel like you (the media) should ask these players who would they want the war to win because if you ask this question, I’m not so sure these people will say that they want Ukraine to win.”
(EXCLUSIVE) Clara Tauson: The Other Danish Rising Star Competing At The French Open
When it comes to Denmark and tennis in 2023, the name of Holger Rune comes to the mind of many given his rapid rise in the sport which includes nine wins over top 10 players within a six-and-a-half month period.
However, the Nordic country also has a promising player on the women’s Tour who has already experienced her fair share of ups and downs. 20-year-old Clara Tauson has been constantly compared to Caroline Wozniacki whilst growing up given her impressive junior career. In 2019 she claimed the Australian Open girls title at the age of 16 which elevated her to the top of the ITF junior rankings. During that same year, she rose by over 130 places in the WTA standings to inside the top 300.
Transitioning to the women’s Tour from junior competition is always a challenge but Tauson impressed early on. A breakout 2021 season saw her claim two WTA titles in Lyon and Luxembourg. She also won a WTA 125K event in Chicago. Then last year she reached a ranking high of No.33 before injury derailed her rise in the sport.
The person in charge of trying to get Tauson back to the top of her game is Carlos Martinez who joined her team just weeks before the start of the French Open. Martinez is a veteran of tennis coaching and previously worked with Daria Kasatkina. He has also guided Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marc Lopez, Fabio Fognini and Feliciano Lopez in the past.
“She called me two or three months ago when I stopped working with Dasha (Daria Kasatkina). We have been in contact for a long time because we talked a few years ago as well,” Martinez told Ubitennis about his latest coaching role.
“She is a girl who has very good potential, really nice and kind. She also wanted to come to my academy. We started a one-week trial and then very fast we started to form a very good connection. In the beginning, we started without any conditions. Then we both felt good (about the collaboration) and started working (together).”
Martinez’s academy, CMC Competition, is located 20 km outside of Barcelona in CT Mollet. The facility has six clay courts, a fully equipped gym and even an outdoor swimming pool. Making it an appealing place to train at this time of the year for players such as Tauson who impressed her new coach at a young age.
“I first saw her when she was 16 and playing at a Fed Cup tie in Poland,” he remembers. “At that time I liked how she was doing. She won the Australian Open (girls) title and was No.1 in the juniors.’
“When I saw her practice at my academy I was not surprised (by her game) because I know she is a really good player. The only thing is that she has to be healthy and work on some aspects. I believe she has a very good future.”
Whilst there is a lot of optimism for the future, it depends a lot on how the Dane’s body holds up. A back injury ruled her out of last year’s French Open and hampered her preparation for Wimbledon where she retired from her opening match. The setbacks continued into this season with a foot injury forcing her out of the Australian Open.
It is always a concern when a player is blighted by injuries at a young age but she isn’t the only person to have experienced this. Another notable case is Emma Raducanu who is currently sidelined from the sport after undergoing three ‘minor’ procedures on both of her hands and ankle.
“I think because she is tall and it was at that time when she was growing, she was affected by a few injuries. We need to prepare her body to be healthy and be one hundred per cent confident that she can compete,” Martinez explains.
“We are not rushing in any aspect such as talking about her ranking because for me the most important thing is to recover her level and then make it better than before. The focus is to build her game, make her understand how to play tennis and believe that she can go back towards the top of the rankings.”
The work between Martinez and Tauson appears to be paying off. As a result of her drop in the rankings, the Dane competed in the qualifying rounds of the French Open. In her opening two matches, she breezed her way past Katie Swan (No.161) and Petra Marcinko (No.257). Then in the final round, she edged out Sweden’s Mirjam Bjorklund 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-2, after almost three hours of play.
Roland Garros was where Tauson made her Grand Slam debut back in 2020. On that occasion, she also had to come through qualifying before stunning 21st seed Jennifer Brady in the first round.
“We are happy that she has qualified here at Roland Garros. My speech to her every day is that we have one more way to improve. There is no pressure at all because she is out of the top 100. This is just the beginning and little by little I am seeing nice things that we are doing in practice she is using on the court for matches.”Carlos Martinez
The trio of victories is undoubtedly a massive boost but back home her achievements have been overshadowed by her friend and former doubles partner Rune. Together they won the Danish Under-12s mixed doubles tournament. They will reunite later this year to play in the Hopman Cup which is taking place after Wimbledon.
“The fact Rune is doing so well is a good motivation for her,” Martinez believes. “They are different players and personalities but they can both become very, very good. It’s good for her to have a friend on the Tour who she can share experiences with.”
“She’s the kind of player who can do everything when it comes to attack. She has a huge forehand, one of the best that I have ever seen. She serves good and has a good backhand.” He added.
Regardless of how Tauson performs in her first round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich in Paris, her new coach admits she needs to work on improving her defensive game. Should this and a few other adjustments be made, the sky’s the limit in Matinez’s eyes.
“Her level for sure one day can be top 20. She is very young and has very good weapons. I’m sure she can be very good. As for when I have no idea because I am not magic. I hope I’m going to be with her for a very long time and see how successful she will become.” He concluded.
Tauson will play her first round match on Sunday.
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