WIMBLEDON, England — Iga Swiatek, cap still down after her latest win, sat in a players’ cafe perched above the All England Club and the grass she’s still learning to love.
From his table on Thursday evening, there was a calming panoramic view of the privileged enjoying their privileges, but Swiatek’s attention was elsewhere. It was about the war in Ukraine and the exhibition match she had announced the day before to help raise funds for young Ukrainians.
It will be held on July 23 in Krakow in Swiatek’s home country of Poland. For Swiatek, ranked No. 1 and on a 37-game winning streak, it’s the latest sign that she wants to use her growing new platform to do more than just sell shoes and rack up Instagram followers.
“It’s a new position I’m in and I’m trying to use it in the best way possible,” Swiatek said. “But I still haven’t figured out how to best use it, you know?” But of course I want to show my support.
“I was 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 him to five continents, fears too much of the rest of the world will move, along with some of his fellow players.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, many players began wearing blue and yellow ribbons, the colors of the Ukrainian national flag, on the pitch. At this point, Swiatek is one of the few non-Ukrainians still wearing the ribbon, which she pins to the side of her cap.
“In our country, we are aware that there is war, but when I travel, I see that there is not much news about it,” Swiatek said. “Of course there were at the beginning, but then there was more and more silence. So basically, I hope I’m going to remind people that the war is out there. Society, we don’t have long memories. But, I mean, lives are at stake, so I think we should remind people of that.
“But it’s just to talk, I guess,” she said. “Right now, I’m pretty happy that we’re taking action.”
The exhibition will feature a match between Swiatek and retired Polish tennis star Agnieszka Radwanska and will raise funds to support war-affected children and teenagers in Ukraine. Elina Svitolina, the current most successful player in Ukraine, pregnant and absent from the circuit at the moment, will serve as chair umpire. Sergiy Stakhovsky, a former Ukrainian male star now in the Ukrainian army, will play doubles with Radwanska against Swiatek and a Polish partner.
Wimbledon has, of course, also taken action, generating great 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 heartbreaking decision under pressure from the British government, but the club have stuck to their guns despite being stripped of ranking points by the men’s and women’s tours.
Swiatek would have liked more consultation between tour executives and the entire player group on the decision to take points, although the WTA players’ council, with its elected representatives, was deeply involved in the process.
“I wasn’t really focused on the dots before because we should be talking about the war and the suffering of the people and not the dots,” Swiatek said. “But of course, when I think about it, it seems right now for winners, and for people who are winning and working really hard, it’s not going to be fair.”
British public opinion polls have reflected support for the Wimbledon ban even though other major tennis events, including the US Open, have not followed Wimbledon’s example, saying individual athletes do not should not be punished for the actions of their governments.
Swiatek’s counterpart on the men’s circuit: Number 1 ranked Daniil Medvedev, a charismatic and polyglot Russian, isn’t in London but trains (and plays 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, were also ruled out.
The ban has drawn mixed reactions on tour, both publicly and privately, but Swiatek, after much deliberation, can see Wimbledon’s point.
“I think that’s the only way to show that it’s wrong to have war and that their aggression is wrong,” she said.
“It’s not fair, for sure, sometimes for these players,” she said of the banned group. “But we are public and we have an impact. This is also why we earn a lot of money. We are sometimes on TV everywhere, and sport has been in politics. I know people want to separate that, and I also wish I wasn’t involved in all aspects of politics, but in this stuff, it is, and you can’t help it sometimes.
Wimbledon did not insist on the Russian and Belarusian ban during the tournament, but it invited all Ukrainian refugees who settled in the area near Wimbledon to attend the tournament on Sunday.
The most vocal opponents of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the tournament have been its players, including Lesia Tsurenko, the last remaining Ukrainian singles player, who lost in the third round on Friday to Germany’s Jule Niemeier.
All major Ukrainian players had to leave the country to pursue their careers. Some like Anhelina Kalinina still live off suitcases and use tournament sites 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 of tennis managed by longtime Italian coach Riccardo Piatti in Bordighera.
“A small town by the sea,” Tsurenko said. “And sometimes when you’re eating good food and you’ve got a great Italian espresso, and you see you’re surrounded by beautiful nature, for a few moments you forget and you’re relaxed, and you think, oh , life is beautiful. But it’s only a few seconds. It’s very difficult for me to explain it to you, and I hope people will never feel that way, but it’s like a part of me is always so tight. And I think it will be a great release when the war is over, but not before.
Swiatek, raised in a family of modest means in the suburbs of Warsaw, doesn’t quite understand what Ukrainians are going through, but she can sympathize and she is increasingly determined to take action. She, like Naomi Osaka before her and 18-year-old American Coco Gauff, is part of a new wave of WTA stars who have made it clear they have no intention of just sticking it out At the sports. Gauff has spoken in recent weeks about gun violence and the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 who remains an activist on many fronts, watched Swiatek and Gauff find their voices.
“Socially the realization 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. She’s still navigating how and where to use her influence, but she’s all in on July 23 in Krakow.
“For me, it’s really important,” she said. “It’s like a fifth Grand Slam.”