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Ukrainian snubs Belarusian opponent by skipping handshake at U.S. Open

Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, left, and Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine touch rackets — but don't shake hands — after their second-round U.S. Open match on Sept. 1. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
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The tap of two tennis rackets at the end of a U.S. Open women’s singles match Thursday was over in seconds. But for a sport in which handshakes are a valued post-match tradition, the exchange highlighted the strains playing out on the court since Russia started a war in Ukraine.

It happened right after Belarusian two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka beat Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, 6-2, 6-3.

The women had played for an hour and a half. On match point, Kostyuk’s forehand went into the net, sending Azarenka to the third round. The 33-year-old screamed in celebration, pumping her clenched fists while the crowd at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens cheered. Kostyuk, meanwhile, approached the net with her racket lifted. The two then quickly bumped rackets before turning to shake the chair umpire’s hand.

The moment lasted less than five seconds, but the tension carried into post-match news conferences.

“It was just my choice,” Kostyuk said of skipping the handshake, adding: “We had a great match, don’t get me wrong. She’s a great competitor, I respect her as an athlete, but that has nothing to do with her as a human being.”

Kostyuk said she could not support tennis players who have not publicly condemned the war in Ukraine, which has killed more than 5,500 civilians and forced over 7 million people from their homes since Russia’s February invasion, according to the United Nations.

Belarus, where Azarenka is from, has been one of Russia’s staunchest allies in its incursion against Ukraine. While it hasn’t gotten directly involved in the conflict, Belarus has allowed Russian forces to stage troops and equipment there. The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Belarus, and Ukraine has accused Russia of launching missiles from there.

Belarusian president, a Putin ally, did not expect war to ‘drag on’

In response to the attack, Russian and Belarusian players were banned from the Wimbledon tennis tournament earlier this year. At the U.S. Open, they’re allowed to play — but only if their flags and countries aren’t listed.

The war has prompted tennis players from across the globe to speak out. In February, Russian player Andrey Rublev scribbled “no war please” on a camera lens after winning his semifinal match in Dubai. Daria Kasatkina, the highest-ranked Russian female player, has been an outspoken critic of what she called “a full-blown nightmare.” In March, Azarenka said “I hope and wish for peace and an end to the war” in a statement posted to Twitter.

Nevertheless, Kostyuk — one of the most vocal Ukrainian players — has been challenging Belarusian and Russian athletes to do more to publicly condemn their countries’ leaders. In April, she was part of a group calling on the sport’s ruling organizations to ask Russian and Belarusian players if they supported the war. If they hadn’t denounced the conflict, the group requested that the athletes be barred from international events.

“As athletes we live a life in the public eye and therefore have an enormous responsibility,” the group wrote, adding that “there comes a time when silence is betrayal, and that time is now.”

This week, Kostyuk told reporters she had texted Azarenka before the match to say she shouldn’t expect a handshake.

“I genuinely wanted to warn her that I’m not going to shake her hand because she never came up to me, at least personally, and didn’t tell me her opinion,” Kostyuk said, adding that Azarenka hadn’t used her role on the Women’s Tennis Association players’ council to speak out against the war.

Azarenka, however rebuffed those claims in a news conference: “I feel like I’ve had a very clear message from the beginning, that I’m here to try to help, which I have done a lot. Maybe not something that people see. And that’s not what I do it for. I do it for people who are in need.”

The Belarusian also said she’d be “open any time to listen, to try to understand, to empathize” with Kostyuk. At the same time, she expressed confusion as to why she was removed from last week’s Tennis Plays for Peace exhibition and fundraiser for Ukraine. Though she was due to participate, Azarenka was eventually booted after Ukrainian players complained.

“I thought that this was a gesture that really shows commitment,” Azarenka said of her plans to participate in the event. “I’m not sure why it wasn’t taken that way.”

While shaking hands isn’t mandatory, it’s rare for players not to partake in the ritual, which is seen as a sign of respect. Tennis magazine writer Steve Tignor once described the moment as “the emotional crux of any match.”

In 2013, Azarenka told USA Today it was important for players to show “that mutual respect for each other” by shaking hands. At the time, she said she would never skip the ritual.

“But that never happened to me. Oh no no! And I would never do that … to my opponent,” she said.

Nearly 10 years later, a war would change that.

Julian Mark contributed to this report.