Ukrainian tennis player Lesia Tsurenko defended her decision not to shake hands with Belarusia's Aryna Sabalenka by stating that the 2023 Australian Open champion was "a part of that war machine."
On Friday, world No. 33 Tsurenko exited the Australian Open in the third round following a brutal defeat to second-seeded Sabalenka. Sabalenka, who is bidding to win back-to-back Australian Open titles, double-bageled Tsurenko 6-0 6-0 to make the round-of-16 at Melbourne Park.
For nearly two full years, Ukrainian players haven't been shaking hands with rivals from Russia and Belarus. Moments after the match was over, Tsurenko went to the chair umpire to shake hands but didn't do the same with Sabalenka.
Last year, 34-year-old Tsurenko gave a walkover to Sabalenka in Indian Wells. Later, Tsurenko claimed that she suffered a panic attack because she was about to face a Belarusian player. After meeting Sabalenka at the Australian Open, Tsurenko described it as "a painful" experience.
“It’s very hard for me. I know where they’re from, this is another reminder for me and it’s painful,” Tsurenko said about facing opponents from Russia and Belarusia.
“They’re part of that ... war machine hurting my country and my people. This is tough for me but I’m trying to find happiness in everything that I do and go and hit the yellow ball.”
Tsurenko: You need to feel what I feel in order to understand
Although Ukrainian players not shaking hands with Russian and Belarusian players isn't anything uncommon, Tsurenko and other Ukrainian players still get asked questions about their position. In Melbourne, Tsurenko suggested that in order to fully understand her position, one must feel and go through what she is experiencing right now.
“This is very tough to explain, you just have to feel what I feel and you will not have these questions for me," Tsurenko said.
For the past two years, Tsurenko and other Ukrainian players have been doing their best to use their position and platform to draw attention to what is happening in Ukraine. Now, Tsurenko admits there are people who have gotten fed up with their comments and want them to stop being so outspoken about Ukraine.
"People don't want to talk about war, people don't want to hear bad news. I get a lot of bad messages on social media that people are kind of annoyed if I post something," Tsurenko said.
Tsurenko rips colleagues over participating in a Russian tournament
In early December, St. Petersburg hosted an exhibition tournament that featured several well-known ATP and WTA stars. Some of the most notable non-Russian names that participated were 2019 Wimbledon semifinalist Roberto Bautista Agut and world No. 19 Adrian Mannarino.
When Tsurenko heard about the St. Petersburg exhibition and its lineup, she reached out to some players, hoping she could persuade them to withdraw from the event. Also, one of the reasons why Tsurenko wasn't happy with ATP and WTA players competing in the St. Petersburg exhibition was the fact that the event was sponsored by Russian oil giant Gazprom, which is owned by the country's government.
"This is what I've texted to people. You're going to promote a company that is sponsoring a bombing of my country and of my closest relatives. I want them to feel a little bit for me and for other Ukrainians," Tsurenko said.
"Especially when that exhibition was on, there was heavy bombings and my sister was very stressed. It is very painful for me but people don't understand."
What did Sabalenka say of Tsurenko after their Australian Open match?
By now, 25-year-old Sabalenka has gotten pretty accustomed to Ukrainian players not wanting to shake her hand at the net following their matches. After the latest case of a Ukrainian player not wanting to shake her hand, the second-ranked player in the world took a calm approach to the situation, saying she "respects" Tsurenko's position.
While Tsurenko didn't shake Sabalenka's hand, the Belarusian was at least told "great play" by the Ukrainian. When revealing that, Sabalenka said she appreciated Tsurenko showing respect in at least some form.
"I respect everyone's position. She [Tsurenko] was quite respectful. She said, 'Great play'. She didn't shake my hand, but she was respectful to me, so I appreciate that," Sabalenka said after the match.
Meanwhile, it was the third meeting between Tsurenko and Sabalenka. Now, Sabalenka owns a 2-1 head-to-head against Tsurenko.
When Tsurenko and Sabalenka met for the first time in 2018 Hobart, the Ukrainian crushed the Belarusian 6-1 6-1. After easily losing their first meeting, Sabalenka got her revenge the following year as she beat Tsurenko 6-2 7-5 in Indian Wells.
In the 2023 Indian Wells third round, Tsurenko and Sabalenka were scheduled to meet for the third time. But as already mentioned above, Tsurenko suffered a panic attack before the match and the match didn't happen. But on Friday, they clashed for the third time and Sabalenka now has a winning head-to-head against Tsurenko.