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WHY RUSSIAN AND BELARUSSIAN PLAYERS DESERVE TO BE TREATED WITH RESPECT



When Victoria Azarenka narrowly lost her epic battle to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina in the fourth round of Wimbledon, the fans turned on her.


The 33-year-old was defeated in a tight three-set battle after losing 6-2, 4-6, 6-7 (9) on Court 1.

Instead of applauding her efforts to fight out the thrilling round of 16 match and play one of the most incredible matches of the tournament, the fans booed her off the court.


At first glance, it was unclear whether the crowd jeered at her because she did not shake hands with Svitolina or if they rejected the former world number one’s country’s decision to go to war and were booing her simply because she was Belarusian.


Regardless of their reasons, both motives seem ridiculous and would appear uneducated, despite the best effort trying to justify them.


If it was the former, which might be more persuasive, then this would appear to be uninformed and unjustified.


After the hard-fought match concluded, Azarenka acknowledged her opponent by waving at Svitolina, before proceeding to shake the umpire’s hand. Some who may be unaware of the circumstances may have thought this was rude by the Belarusian. But it was Ukrainian Svitolina who had previously publicly sated she will not shake hands with Russian or Belarusian players. She had even doubled down on her stance prior to the match.


It was not Azarenka’s decision to not shake hands with her Ukrainian opponent. It was Svitolina who had made it clear she was taking that stance – to not shake hands with any Russian or Belarusian players due to the invasion of Ukraine. Therefore Azarenka actually resected her opponent’s decision and any question should be asked of Svitolina not Azarenka.


The fans seem oblivious to the context behind Azarenka’s actions.


As Azarenka pointed out in her post-match press conference, the hostile treatment, “wasn’t fair.”


She tried to provide an excuse for the fans actions by saying they may have had too much to drink, but she was just being nice. Being fuelled by alcohol does not justify such vitriolic behaviour.


As the interviewer pointed out, Azarenka wasn’t the aggressor in this situation. But it’s not the first time she has been the recipient of backlash resulting from her government’s decision.


“It’s been pretty consistent for the last 18-19 months, I haven’t done anything wrong but I keep getting different treatment sometimes.”


“What can I say about the crowd? There is nothing to say.


“She doesn’t want to shake hands with Russian, Belarusian people. I respected her decision. What should I have done? Stayed and waited?


“There’s nothing I could do that would have been right, so I just did what I thought was respectful towards her decision,” the two-time Wimbledon champion said.


And then, in what may have been a clever pointed message to her Ukrainian opponent, while also steering the reporters away from that angle and back onto the high-quality tennis match, the Belarusian added, “This conversation about shaking hands is not a life-changing situation.

So if you guys want to keep talking about it, bring it up, make it a big deal and headlines then keep going. I thought it was a great tennis match. If people are going to keep focusing on handshakes or quite drunk crowds booing in the end, then it’s a shame. At the end of the day, it was a tennis match. Nobody is changing lives here.”


As Azarenka pointed out, what was she expected to do? Wait at the net to exchange post-match pleasantries only to place Svitolina in an awkward position and then be embarrassed in front of the huge crowd when Svitolina would not acknowledge her? Thus, adding to the humiliation and disappointment of losing the close match, also adding rejection. That would seem a brutal blow, just adding insult to injury.


If she had done that, many would have questioned why Azarenka waited at the net if Svitolina had already made it clear she would not shake her hand.


So either way she could not win – which makes it unfair to boo her.


And if it was the latter reason that led to the booing, then this also seems to be unfair because it was not Azarenka’s decision for Russian President Vladimir Putin to go to war and invade Ukraine.


Azarenka and other Russian and Belarusian athletes have no control over the decision making in the country of their birth, and in Azarenka’s case, she has long been living in Florida anyway.


In no way, shape or form did the tennis players have any involvement in that decision or the atrocities carried out by some of their compatriots. If anything, the athletes have mentioned they do not want war.


I say this because I’ve spoken to some of the Russian tennis players and I know that, although they can’t necessarily speak on the record for fear of retribution.


As it was not their decision to go to war, they should not be punished.


In fact, Azarenka herself spoke out against the war back when it first unfolded at the start of March 2022.


The Belarusian tennis star said she was shattered by the invasion of Ukraine at the time.


“I am devastated by the actions that have taken place over the last several days – against – and in Ukraine,” the former world number one posted on her Twitter account.


“It’s heartbreaking to see how many innocent people have been affected and continue to be affected by such violence. Since my early childhood, I have always seen and experienced Ukrainian and Belarusian people, as well as both nations, friendly and supportive of one another.


“It is hard to witness the violent separation that is currently taking place instead of supporting and finding compassion for each other. My heart is with everyone directly and indirectly impacted by this war that is causing such pain and suffering for so many. I hope and wish for peace and an end to the war.”


It does not help when tennis authorities and sporting bodies ban the athletes like we saw at the Olympics and at Wimbledon last year.


And perhaps it’s time that politics and sport do not mix. As Azarenka pointed out, the ban on Russian and Belarusian players last year from the All England Club achieved nothing.


They were banned from Wimbledon and yet were permitted to play in the other three Grand Slams. And what was the point of banning them? It was not their decision to go to war and invade Ukraine so why are the athletes punished?


Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world and is regarded by many as the most prestigious. But if Londoners want it to continue to be held in high esteem, they should also respect the players that are competing.


Wimbledon fans, you’ve been disgraceful – and I know it’s not all of you, but as these things go, some can paint a bad light and spoil it for the majority. In this case, the jeers were loud enough to overcome any applause for the great match Azarenka had played out.


And it’s not just the treatment of Russian and Belarusian players that has been disappointing, but there have been several other instances of antisocial behaviour by spectators.


Australia’s own Daria Saville complained about being put off by a group of young men who were making bowel noises while the treatment afforded to former world number one Novak Djokovic has been appalling. Someone who has won 23 Grand Slams and seven men's singles titles at Wimbledon alone deserves to be treated with more class and respect.


The disrespectful behaviour only reflects poorly on the fans.


Azarenka is a seasoned professional, having won 21 WTA singles titles. While everyone deserves to be treated with respect, she has definitely earned it.


The targeting of Azarenka and other stars as mentioned, shows a lack of gratitude and even verges on potentially being racist. If they are booing her because of her background, then that could be perceived as racist.


In a world where we say we place paramount importance on mental health, perhaps it is time to show true action. When players, like Naomi Osaka say they need a break for their mental health, they are applauded. So why are we treating players with such contempt and disrespect?


To the fans that unceremoniously jeered a champion of tennis, you’re better than that!


And to Wimbledon organisers who are so strict about their dress code and etiquette at the All England Club. To the extent that even women’s finalist Ons Jabeur got fined and evicted from centre court for wearing a black top in her pre-match practice.


If you’re going to be that strict about clothing, then maintain consistency.

Call out the disrespect too!

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