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‘Part of that … war machine hurting my country and my people,’ says Ukrainian tennis star of Russian and Belarusian opponents

For Ukrainian tennis players Marta Kostyuk and Lesia Tsurenko, focusing on tennis continues to be challenging.

Almost two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two women are using their platform at the Australian Open to share the ongoing plight of the country and their families back home.

Kostyuk and Tsurenko have continued to avoid the usual post-match handshakes with opponents from either Russia or Belarus, which is being used as a staging ground for the invasion.

Kostyuk defeated Russia’s Elina Avanesyan 2-6 6-4 6-4 on Friday to reach the Australian Open fourth round for the first time in her career and, rather than talk about her own personal achievement, she spoke to reporters about the conditions still facing her family in Ukraine.

“My mother sends me videos when there are missiles flying over their house,” Kostyuk told reporters. “I watch this. To me, it’s incredible that it’s still going on and it’s been almost two years.

“People are incredibly depressed now and tired. I try to do my best. I compete and I try to succeed.”

Kostyuk said the conditions her family and much of the rest of the country are living under continue to put playing tennis into perspective.

“At the end of the day, I look around and I don’t feel all of this really matters,” she explained. “It’s just a match. It’s just a tournament. Out there is real life.”

CNN has offered Avanesyan the opportunity to comment via her representatives.

Tsurenko also avoided a handshake following her 6-0 6-0 defeat to Belarussian No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka and said playing against players from Russia or Belarus is still “tough.”

“They’re part of that … war machine hurting my country and my people,” Tsurenko said.

“This is tough for me, but I’m trying to find happiness in everything that I do and go and hit the yellow ball.”

Lesia Tsurenko did not shake Aryna Sabalenka's hand after their match. - Phil Walter/Getty Images
Lesia Tsurenko did not shake Aryna Sabalenka's hand after their match. - Phil Walter/Getty Images

Tsurenko added that it was now difficult for her to have relationships with the Russian and Belarussian players on tour, largely because the vast majority had not even privately told her that they condemn the war in Ukraine.

“I don’t have respect for the fact that, for most of them, it was impossible to come and say that they don’t agree with what’s going on in my country … 99% of them never did,” she said.

“Why should I have any relationship with them?”

After her victory, Sabalenka said she understands and respects the position taken by the Ukrainian players on tour, adding that Tsurenko was “quite respectful” after the match.

“She said: ‘Great play,’” Sabalenka told reporters. “She didn’t shake my hand, but she was respectful to me, so I appreciate that.”

Up next for Kostyuk in the fourth round in Melbourne is another Russian opponent, Maria Timofeeva.

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