Ukraine: Geographically Far From Indian Wells But Close In Heart

Marta Kostyuk (photo: WTA Tour video)

INDIAN WELLS/WASHINGTON, March 12, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

While the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in the Southern California palm desert geographically is 10 time zones and 10,326 kilometers away from Ukraine, it’s been close to the hearts of many this week.

The BNP Paribas Open women’s singles draw has included four Ukrainians: No. 12 seed Elina Svitolina, Dayana Yastremska, Anhelina Kalinina and Marta Kostyuk. Their personal stories have tugged at the heartstrings of many who follow tennis and go beyond the borders of sport, too.

Add to the mix, Maryna Zanevska, born in Ukraine who now represents Belgium. She faced Kostyuk in an emotional first-round match Thursday afternoon. The 54th-ranked Kostyuk won 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 7-5 in a match that eclipsed three hours. Afterward, the two friends and competitors shared a tearful embrace that was long but very heartfelt.

Both played through physical pain and mental anguish. Afterward, they did their best to boost the morale of the other one. Zanevska: “I told her that everything is going to be all right.” Kostyuk: “I told her that everything is going to be OK, that our parents are going to be OK.”

By Saturday, only the Kyiv-born Kostyuk remained in the draw following the earlier losses of the other three over the previous two days. She played No. 20 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium in the first match of the day on Stadium 9 and lost 6-2, 6-1 in 67 minutes. She was outpointed 62-35.

The 19-year-old Kostyuk has been the most outspoken Ukrainian of all this week, taking her fight onto the tennis court and into the press room, too. It was there Kostyuk said that she must show “what it’s like having a Ukrainian heart.” She also said it “hurts” to see Russian players at the tournament.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine is into its third week, Kostyuk opened up to the media after her Thursday victory when she said: “It’s just terrifying, especially in the beginning, the first couple days, my whole family was there. They were all in one house, so if anything was about to happen, I would lose the whole family. So, thinking of it is just you go to sleep and you don’t know if you wake up the next morning having the family,” she said.

Kostyuk said everyone’s coping differently, but she chose to fight. “I came here. At the beginning, I was feeling guilty that I’m not there,” she admitted. “You know, the whole family is there but not me. I was feeling guilty that I’m playing tennis, that I have the sky above me that is blue and bright and very calm and mixed feelings. But you can’t be in this position, because everyone is fighting how they can fight, and my job is to play tennis, and this is the biggest way I can help in the current situation.”

There have been Ukrainian flags and banners flying prominently around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden this week and many players have been seen on court wearing blue and yellow pins to show their solidarity with Ukraine. Some, like Kostyuk, have worn blue and yellow kits for their matches. Others, who aren’t Ukrainian like Russian-born Daria Saville of Australia and Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, also chose to wear blue and yellow out of respect.

If it were up to Kostyuk, Russian players should be barred from competing on Tour, even as individuals. Russian teams have already been barred from playing Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup and this year’s men’s and women’s tour events in Moscow have been canceled.

“I don’t agree with the action that has been taken,” Kostyuk said. “Look at the other sports. Look at the big sports, what they did.”

Kostyuk said she’s disappointed that none of the Russian players who are competing at Indian Wells have not expressed their regret for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine directly to her.

“Unfortunately, none of the Russian tennis players came to me to tell me they are sorry for what their country is doing to mine,” Kostyuk said. “For me this is shocking, because you don’t have to be into politics or into deep stuff to just be a human being. …

“Seeing the players on site really hurts me. Seeing them having the only problem is not being able to transfer money or stuff, that’s what they’re talking about, it’s like, I don’t know, this is unacceptable for me.”

After defeating Zanevska Thursday, Kostyuk believes she did her part for her country. She declared: “I showed once again what it’s like having a Ukrainian heart and putting everything I can on the court, and leaving everything out there.”