HomeSportsWorld No. 1 Iga Swiatek is comfortable using her influence

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek is comfortable using her influence

WIMBLEDON, England — Iga Swiatek, cap still lowered after her latest victory, sat in a players’ cafe above the All England Club and the pitch she’s still learning to love.

From his table Thursday night, there was a wide, relaxing view of privileged people enjoying their privileges, but Swiatek’s focus was elsewhere. He was about the war in Ukraine and about the exhibition match he had announced a day earlier to help raise funds for young Ukrainians.

It will take place on July 23 in Krakow, in Swiatek’s home country of Poland. For Swiatek, ranked No. 1 and riding a 37-fight win streak, it’s the latest sign that she wants to use her rapidly expanding new platform to do much more than sell shoes and amass an Instagram following.

“It’s a new position that I’m in, and I’m trying to use it the best way I can,” Swiatek said. “But I still haven’t figured out how to use it in the best way, you know? But for sure, I want to show my support.”

“I’ve been very emotional about it,” she said of the war.

Poland, which borders Ukraine, has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees, but Swiatek, whose work takes her to five continents, worries that much of the rest of the world is moving in, along with some of her fellow players.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, many players began wearing ribbons on the pitch that were blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian national flag. At this stage, Swiatek is one of the few non-Ukrainians who still wears the ribbon, which she attaches to the side of her cap.

“In our country, we are aware that there is a war, but when I travel, I can see that there is not much news about it,” Swiatek said. “Of course there was at first, but then there was more and more silence. Basically, I hope to remind people that the war is out there. Society, we don’t have much memory. But, I mean, lives are at stake, so I think we should remind people of that.”

“But that’s just talk, I guess,” he said. “Right now, I’m pretty happy that we’re taking some action.”

The exhibition will feature a match between Swiatek and retired Polish tennis player Agnieszka Radwanska and will raise funds in support of children and adolescents affected by the war in Ukraine. Elina Svitolina, Ukraine’s most successful current player who is pregnant and off tour at the moment, will serve as chair umpire. Sergiy Stakhovsky, a former Ukrainian men’s star now in the Ukrainian army, will play doubles with Radwanska against Swiatek and a Polish partner.

Wimbledon, of course, also took action, generating a lot of debate in the game as the only Grand Slam tennis tournament to ban Russian and Belarusian players due to the invasion. The All England Club made the move, heartbreakingly, under some pressure to act from the British government, but the club stuck to its guns despite being stripped of ranking points for the men’s and women’s tours.

Swiatek would have liked more consultation between tour leaders and the entire player group on the decision to drop points, although the WTA Players Council, with its elected representatives, was deeply involved in the process.

“Before I didn’t really focus on the points, because we should be talking about the war and the suffering of the people and not about the points,” Swiatek said. “But sure, when I think about it, it seems like right now for the winners and for the people who are winning and really working hard, it’s not going to be fair.”

British public opinion polls have reflected support for a Wimbledon ban even if other major tennis events, including the US Open, have not followed Wimbledon’s example, maintaining that individual athletes should not be punished for the actions of their governments.

Swiatek’s counterpart on the men’s circuit: No. 1 ranked Daniil Medvedev, a charismatic and polyglot Russian, is not in London and is instead training (and playing golf) at his base in the south of France. Six women’s singles players ranked in the top 40, including No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, have also been excluded.

The ban has been met with mixed reactions on tour, both in public and private, but Swiatek, after much deliberation, can see the prospect of Wimbledon.

“I think it’s the only way to show that it’s wrong to have a war and that their aggression is wrong,” he said.

“It’s not fair, for sure, sometimes to these players,” he said of the banned group. “But we are public and we have an impact. That’s why we’re also making a lot of money. Sometimes we are on TV everywhere, and sports have been in politics. I know people want to separate that, and I also wish I weren’t involved in all aspects of politics, but in these kinds of matters it is, and sometimes you can’t help it.”

Wimbledon has not emphasized the ban on Russia and Belarus during the tournament, but has invited all Ukrainian refugees who have settled in the area around Wimbledon to attend Sunday’s tournament.

The most vocal opponents of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the tournament have been its players, including Lesia Tsurenko, the last remaining Ukrainian in singles, who lost in the third round on Friday to Jule Niemeier of Germany.

All the top Ukrainian players have had to leave the country to continue their careers. Some, like Anhelina Kalinina, still live out of suitcases and use tournament venues as training bases, but Tsurenko was eventually able to rent an apartment in Italy and often trains alongside Marta Kostyuk, another talented Ukrainian player, at the center. tennis court operated by veteran Italian coach Riccardo Piatti in Bordighera.

“A small town by the sea,” said Tsurenko. “And sometimes when you’re eating great food and drinking amazing Italian espresso, and you see that you’re surrounded by beautiful nature, for a few moments you forget and you’re relaxed, and you think, oh, life is good. But it’s only a few seconds. It’s really hard for me to explain to them, and I hope people never feel this, but it’s like a part of me is always so tense. And I think it will be a big release when the war is over, but not before.”

Swiatek, raised in a poor family in the suburbs of Warsaw, cannot fully understand what Ukrainians are experiencing, but she can sympathize and is increasingly determined to act. She, like Naomi Osaka before her and 18-year-old American Coco Gauff, are part of a new wave of WTA stars who have made it clear they don’t intend to simply stick to the sport. Gauff has spoken out in recent weeks about gun violence and the repeal of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court.

Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 who remains an activist on many fronts, has been watching Swiatek and Gauff find their voices.

“Socially, the awareness of these two, they could really change the world,” said Navratilova, who vows to block anyone on Twitter who tells her to stick to tennis.

Swiatek is not there yet. He is still navigating how and where to use his influence, but he is due on July 23 in Krakow.

“For me, it’s really important,” he said. “It’s like a fifth Grand Slam.”

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