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Marta Kostyuk, the Accidental Spokesperson
"I now represent my nation even more than before," the 20-year-old Ukrainian told us at the US Open. "You approach things differently when you are in this position."
Published Sep 10, 2022
The Break: Elina Svitolina raises money for Ukraine
NEW YORK—Marta Kostyuk made history in 2018 when, at just 15, she qualified for the Australian Open and became the youngest player to reach the third round of the tournament since Martina Hingis in 1996. Kostyuk dreamed of becoming a Grand Slam champion one day. She didn’t fantasize about becoming a teenage spokesperson for her war-torn homeland, Ukraine.
But Kostyuk has become that as a result of her understandable inability to compartmentalize and suppress her feelings about Russia’s ongoing devastation of Ukraine, and the tennis community’s response—a reaction that, apart from some charitable giving, has been muted at best.
“I don’t know how I feel about this, being a spokesperson,” Kostyuk told me as we sat talking on Labor Day at the US Open.
Still just 20, Kostyuk has a broad, friendly face, glowing olive skin, and—surprisingly, given the fact that she had just played a doubles match—perfectly manicured, long fingernails, painted peach. A note of pride crept into her voice as she continued, “I feel fine with this role. I now represent my nation even more than before. When I do something it isn’t just for me, there is a whole nation looking out for and supporting me. You approach things differently when you are in this position.”
Kostyuk learned that lesson soon after her tidy world was turned upside down by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and she began to use her voice in protest. Her family is from the capital, Kyiv. Terrified, they were forced to shelter in place until her three siblings and their families could flee (Kostyuk’s father Oleg remained, and is still in Kyiv). At the time, Marta and her coach and mother, Talina Beiko, were abroad, preparing to play Indian Wells. The first few months after the invasion were, she said, “incredibly difficult. Super stressful.”
Through those times, though, the events and experiences that pushed Kostyuk over the line, separating the anxious silence of the early days from vocal dissent, were working on her. She had hoped that players like major Belarusian star Victoria Azarenka, frequently an outspoken politician on the WTA Player Council, would publicly support Ukraine—“Spread a good message that they don’t support the murders, the rapes, the genocide that’s happening,” says Kostyuk. It never happened. Nor did any of the Russian or Belarusian players reach out to Kostyuk in the privacy of the locker room to offer their support or sympathy.
Many players in that group did lob in vacuous anti-war platitudes. Faced with the carnage, they described it as a “humanitarian” crisis—as if Ukraine’s plight was the result of a flood or an earthquake, rather than the largest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. The locker room became a surreal place for Kostyuk, an uncomfortable netherworld full of averted eyes and silence. She felt that Ukrainian players were invisible, existing in “a different reality.”
I don’t have a vendetta against anyone, and I haven’t criticized anyone’s personality. Vika is a great competitor. I can’t take that away from her. The war can’t take that away from her. Marta Kostyuk
Before one match with a Russian player at a tournament, Kostyuk told The Times (UK), she was informed that a Russian coach on the tour was going around telling anyone who would listen that Ukraine “deserved” the war. Distraught, Kostyuk filed a formal complaint about the coach with the WTA, but after having to prod for a reply, she was told that the tour could take no action on the matter.
At Wimbledon, Kostyuk criticized Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal for objecting to the ban on Russian and Belarusian players, as well as the WTA’s decision to retaliate to the lockout by stripping Wimbledon of vital ranking points. Kostyuk denounced the WTA and Azarenka as well, accusing them of indifference to the crisis and offering no outreach or consultation with Ukrainian pros.
“It is as if Ukrainian tennis players did not exist,” she said. In an interview with Reuters, singling out Azarenka, she added, “[She’s] making decisions about points in Wimbledon, where she's not even participating. And saying that she has no personal interest in making decisions. Just the fact that she's present there on the calls, doing whatever. It's ridiculous.”
Not long thereafter, Azarenka was slated to appear in the USTA’s Tennis Plays for Peace exhibition to raise money for aid to Ukraine. Kostyuk and Lesia Tsurenko, another distraught Ukrainian player, were stunned and withdrew from the event. “My nation is being killed daily,” Kostyuk said. “Imagine there is World War Two and there is a fundraiser for Jewish people, and a German player wants to play. During the war, not 70 years after the war. I don’t think Jewish people would understand.”
Kostyuk drove her point home by noting that she had not heard from Azarenka since the invasion began and said there was “no open help from her.” The USTA reacted swiftly, announcing in a statement that it had withdrawn Azarenka from the exhibition. Stung, Azarenka presented herself as the aggrieved party, tweeting, “Never take for granted the impact of a kind gesture.”
As fate intervened, the two women would meet on a tennis court: in the second round of this tournament. After a practice session the previous day, Kostyuk texted Azarenka to warn her that whatever the outcome, instead of shaking hands at the end of the match, she would just tap racquets (a stratagem she currently employs in all matches with Russians or Belarusians). Kostyuk also asked if they could meet for a larger conversation about the war, her thoughts on where Belarus stood, and her activities on the Player Council. Azarenka replied that she was not on site.
Azarenka won the match handily (6-2, 6-3), after which reporters queried her about some of Kosytuk’s recent comments. Azarenka said she had reached out but “to players that I personally know” (a group that conveniently did not include Kostyuk). She touted her role on the Player Council. She called for everyone to be “human and empathetic,” yet in the next breath she appeared to forget that Kostyuk is a 20-year-old whose nation has become a killing field. Tone-deaf at best, she said: “From my perspective, I wish she had somebody who guided her a little bit better.”
This entire series of events has taken a toll on Kostyuk. She reached a career-high ranking of No. 49 just days before the Ukrainian invasion, but she’s fallen to No. 65 in the interim. The WTA website wouldn’t touch her story with a 10-foot pole. She has stoked some simmering resentments among those who feel they have done nothing wrong—but also nothing right, or admirable. She’s a thorn in the side of those who just want to be left alone to chase ranking points and dollars.
Yet Kostyuk says she is really happy, and that the crisis has brought out the best in her.
“I feel like I'm not so caught up in this routine you live as a player,” she says. “I know there are a lot of other things in life and I am more conscious of everything else going on around me.” She said she “cherishes” every day she spends on a court now, playing, healthy, enjoying the privileged atmosphere of tennis. “Even playing with Vika,” she said. “I was standing at the service line saying to myself, ‘Marta, you are playing in the second round of the US Open. It’s great, enjoy this moment, because not many people make it here.’”
Kostyuk said that she feels justified in what she is saying about the war and those who seem to treat it lightly.
“I don’t have a vendetta against anyone, and I haven’t criticized anyone’s personality,” she said. “Vika is a great competitor. I can’t take that away from her. The war can’t take that away from her.”
The racquet tap will continue to replace the handshake with some opponents, Kostyuk said.
“It’s just the right thing to do because there are millions (sic) of people fighting, dying every second, and I am out there shaking hands with people who didn’t even show me support, not even privately, out of the public eye.”
Kostyuk said the war has changed her perspective on life after the first few difficult months. She said she had to “trust the process that things would get better.” Two psychologists helped her successfully navigate that challenge. But she still feels that she and her compatriots inhabit a “different world” from everyone else.
That makes Kostyuk’s role as a spokesperson for that world a crucial job, even if it is a surreal place few inhabit—or understand.