For the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a Russian tennis player has publicly criticized the war, a move that may land her in trouble if and when she returns to her home country.
During a series of recent interviews with the Russian blogger Vitya Kravchenko in Barcelona that were published on YouTube, Daria Kasatkina described the war as “a full-blown nightmare,” said the end of the war was what she wanted most in life right now, and also came out as gay.
For Kasatkina, currently the highest-ranked Russian woman at No. 12, the statements were a rare move for a celebrity of her stature in Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin has supported a series of laws against speaking out against the war and against expressing favorable views of homosexuality.
Kasatkina, 25, who goes by “Dasha,” said she wanted to train with and play against players “who don’t have to worry about being bombed,” according to the subtitles of the video, which circulated on Twitter on Tuesday. She expressed empathy for Ukrainian players who have been forced to leave their homes and to call tennis academies in Western Europe to ask for a place to train while the war rages in their country. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to have no home,” she said.
Lesia Tsurenko, a 33-year-old veteran from Kyiv, is one of those players. Tsurenko spent the early days of Wimbledon watching footage from Ukraine showing that Russians had bombed a shopping mall and other civilian targets.
“They’re just trying to kill as many people as possible,” Tsurenko said of the Russian military.
Earlier this year, after months of uncertainty, Tsurenko moved to Italy to live and train at an academy run by the famous coach Riccardo Piatti. Tsurenko also spoke at Wimbledon of the difficulty of sharing locker rooms and hotels with Russian players whom she assumes support Putin and the war in some way, given Putin’s popularity in Russia and his control of state media. Russian players had made no effort to speak with her or express empathy, Tsurenko said.
Another player from Ukraine, Dayana Yastremska, 22, said the same thing at the French Open.
Asked whether she worried for her safety if she were to decide to return home following the busy summer schedule of tournaments in Europe and North America, Kasatkina replied, “Yes I have thought about that,” and said she felt powerless to change anything. “Even Europe can’t do” anything, she said, using an expletive.
Kasatkina’s comments come as Russian players have returned to the top level of professional tennis following a forced hiatus.
In April, acting at the behest of the British government, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which runs Wimbledon, and the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees the other annual spring and summer tournaments in England, barred Russian and Belarusian players from their tournaments.
“The UK government has set out directional guidance for sporting bodies and events in the UK, with the specific aim of limiting Russia’s influence,” said Ian Hewitt, the chairman of the All England Club. “We have taken that directional guidance into account, as we must as a high-profile event and leading British institution.”
He said the combination of the scale and severity of Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state, the condemnation by over 140 nations through the United Nations and the “specific and directive guidance to address matters” made this a “very, very exceptional situation.”
The move was popular in Britain, according to opinion polls, but received significant pushback from the men’s and women’s tennis tours. They condemned it as discriminatory and decided to withhold rankings points for any victories at Wimbledon. It also represented a dramatic break with precedents of not letting politics interfere with individual athletes’ participation in sports and of limiting punishments taken in reaction to the war to barring Russian and Belarusian teams or any flags or other symbols of the countries from competitions.
In a twist of irony, Elena Rybakina, who was born in Russia but opted to represent Kazakhstan four years ago in exchange for funding from that country’s tennis federation, won the Wimbledon women’s singles title. Rybakina, whose parents still live in Russia and who still spends time there, deferred when asked about the war, claiming her English skills were limited, despite holding lengthy news conferences in English on a variety of subjects throughout the tournament.
Other Russian players, including Daniil Medvedev, the No. 1-ranked men’s singles player, and Karen Khachanov, ranked 26th in men’s singles, have also steered clear of commenting on the Russian invasion, other than to say they were in favor of peace, though they did not elaborate under what circumstances that peace should occur.
Earlier this year, before the invasion, Andrey Rublev, another top Russian player, wrote “No War Please” on a television camera following a match. Rublev was particularly dismayed about being barred from playing Wimbledon. He offered to donate any money he might have earned from the tournament to relief efforts in Ukraine.
The United States Tennis Association, which organizes the US Open and helps oversee several other summer tournaments ahead of the Grand Slam event, opted not to follow Wimbledon’s lead and will allow Russian and Belarusian players to participate.
Kasatkina’s comments about her sexuality and Russia’s views on homosexuality will undoubtedly cause shock waves in her country. She criticized the country for forcing LGBTQ people into having to live secret lives.
“Living in the closet is the hardest thing, it’s impossible,” she said. Asked whether two women would ever be able to walk down the street holding hands, she said, “Never.”
Kravchenko asked if she currently had a girlfriend. “Yes,” Kasatkina said.
“Sports is like a little straw that may pull something,” she said, “I don’t know, shed some light.”
At the conclusion of the interview, Kasatkina cried into Kravchenko’s chest as they sat beside a tennis court and she worried about whether she would be safe if she returned home.
“You’re a good girl, Dasha,” he tells her.