Ukrainian tennis player Marta Kostyuk refused to shake hands with Belarusian opponent Victoria Azarenka after their US Open match on Thursday.
Kostyuk had texted Azarenka ahead of the second-round match that she intended to forego the usual post-match handshake given Belarus’ role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The pair instead tapped the net with racquets at the end of the game, which Azarenka won 6-2, 6-3.
“It was my decision – I don’t feel like I don’t know a single person who has publicly condemned the war and their government’s actions, so I don’t feel I can support that,” said the 20-year-old -old Kostyuk told ESPN.
“Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great competitor. But it has nothing to do with her being human,” she added.
Kostyuk is one of several Ukrainian players who have called on Russian and Belarusian athletes to denounce the Russian government’s decision to invade Ukraine if they want to compete in international competitions.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The country was used as a launching pad for Russian troops in February, and NATO officials said the “vast majority” of Russian air operations in Ukraine are launched from Belarus — despite Lukashenko having previously said his country was “pulled” into the war .
“I wasn’t surprised. I don’t think it’s important to make a big deal out of it,” Azarenka told reporters about the handshake, adding that it also happened when she faced Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska in Washington last month.
“I always shake hands with my opponents… It is what it is. I just keep walking I can’t force anyone to shake my hand. It is your decision. How did I feel about it? It’s not the most important thing in the world right now.”
Ahead of this year’s US Open, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) announced that Azarenka has been banned from attending a Tennis Plays for Peace event to raise funds for Ukraine.
“Vika is a strong player leader and we appreciate her willingness to participate. Given the sensitivities towards Ukrainian players and the ongoing conflict, we believe this is the right course of action for us,” the USTA said in a statement.
On Thursday, Azarenka said she was “always open to listen to, try to understand and sympathize with Ukrainian players”.
“I think empathy is really important in moments like this, which was my clear message again in the beginning,” she continued.
“I will stand by that because what is happening in the world right now is very difficult, but we should not forget that we are all human and should treat each other as such.”
This isn’t the first time tennis has become intertwined with geopolitics in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russian and Belarusian players competing under neutral flags at the US Open were banned from attending Wimbledon earlier this year. However, the decision proved divisive, and tennis governing bodies responded by removing ranking points from the tournament.
Azarenka, a three-time US Open finalist, will play Croatia’s Petra Martić in the third round on Saturday.