Elliott: Invasion of Ukraine on top of mind for players competing at Indian Wells

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine returns a ball as she plays against Anastasia Potapova of Russia.
Elina Svitolina of Ukraine hits a return during a match against Anastasia Potapova of Russia in Monterrey, Mexico, on Tuesday. Svitolina has led a movement to ban Russian and Belarusian flags at tennis tournaments. (Uncredited / Associated Press)

Most of the top tennis players in the world will assemble this week in Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open, always a popular stop because of its lush surroundings and high-caliber competition. But amid the picturesque desert setting the hearts of some players will be half a world away.

Tennis has been jolted by the repercussions of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. The International Tennis Federation, responding to Russia’s aggression and Belarus’ support of Russia, banned the tennis federations of Russia and Belarus from competing in ITF competitions and suspended an event scheduled in October in Moscow. Players from the two countries will be allowed to compete as individuals but can’t display the name or flag of Russia or Belarus.

The toll has been heavy on a human level. Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine took shelter in an underground parking garage for two nights before her parents sent her and her 15-year-old sister, Ivanna, to safety in France. She reached the final of an event in Lyon and on Sunday was given a main draw wild card at Indian Wells. Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, ranked No. 15 in the world, led the movement to ban the Russian and Belarusian flags at tournaments. She vowed to give her winnings last week in Monterrey, Mexico, to the Ukrainian army.

“I was on a mission for my country,” Svitolina said before she lost in the quarterfinals.

Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, who last Monday became the first man outside the “Big Four” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to be ranked No. 1 since Feb. 1, 2004, deleted the Russian flag that had been on his Instagram profile. “It is a huge honor to take over this spot. I am sure everyone can understand it comes with mixed emotions that it happens this week,” he said. He added a request for “peace in the world, for peace between countries.”

A tennis tournament seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But competing has a higher purpose than usual if the court can be a refuge for players and give them a platform to raise support for people under siege in Ukraine.

“This is so much more than the sport. There's so many people involved that we all know on both sides, truly,” said former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who will be part of the Tennis Channel’s extensive Indian Wells coverage.

“It's absolutely heartbreaking for everybody, especially for the players obviously from Ukraine, for Svitolina, who has family there still. You know these players aren't sleeping at night. You know their energy is worried about everything going on back at home.”

Rafael Nadal competes against Karen Khachanov at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in March 2019.
Rafael Nadal competes against Karen Khachanov at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in March 2019. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

Simply from a competitive perspective this year’s BNP Paribas Open — which starts Monday with qualifying and continues with first-round play on Wednesday and Thursday — will be intriguing. Men’s career singles Grand Slam leader Nadal will try to extend his 15-0 start, Medvedev will experience the pressures of being No. 1, and Taylor Fritz of Rancho Palos Verdes is riding a surge that began when he reached the semifinals at last year’s pandemic-delayed Indian Wells tournament. Murray, given a wild-card entry, has reunited with coach Ivan Lendl, who guided him to three Slam singles titles and two Olympic gold medals.

Nadal’s early success has been inspiring, considering he was hampered by a foot injury the last two years and had tested positive for the coronavirus in December. He added to his legend by coming back from two sets down to beat Medvedev in the Australian Open final and win his 21st Grand Slam singles title, moving him one ahead of Djokovic and Federer. “It’s been the best possible storyline for tennis this year,” Davenport said of Nadal.

Djokovic, ranked No. 2 after 361 weeks as No. 1, was among the announced entries but it’s unlikely he will be allowed into the United States because he’s unvaccinated. He was granted an exemption for the Australian Open but his visa was revoked and he was deported. The schedule on Djokovic’s website shows no tournament this week.

There’s much to look forward to on the women’s side even though world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty withdrew citing a lack of recovery time after her Australian Open triumph and Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins pulled out because of an ongoing injury.

Naomi Osaka, who made her breakthrough at Indian Wells in 2018, was given a wild card this year and moved into the main draw when Camila Giorgi withdrew. Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open women’s champion, also got a wild card. Iga Swiatek of Poland and Anett Kontaveit of Estonia have ascended to new levels this year, and Floridian Coco Gauff could be a factor despite a still-erratic serve. “I feel like something is going to happen big for her here pretty soon,” Davenport said of Gauff, who will be 18 next Sunday. “She's worked too hard, she's too good for that not to happen.”

The Indian Wells tournament was among the first big sports events to be canceled in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it was delayed last year until October by COVID concerns. The timing of the tournament will be back to normal, even if the rest of the world is not.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.