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Tensions around the war in Ukraine are impacting the sports world

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The war in Ukraine is affecting almost every aspect of life in Europe, including sports. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from the French Open.

STEPHANE GUROV: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Stephane Gurov, CEO of a sports management company, cheers on one of his clients, women's world No. 67, Varvara Gracheva, who's Russian. Gurov also represents Ukrainian players. He says it's difficult as the war has created tensions in the locker rooms.

GUROV: As a players management company, you know, we're not into politics, you know. Our duty is to stay behind your players, support them wherever they come from.

BEARDSLEY: He says tennis, like soccer, has been especially affected by the war because both have widely watched international events.

GUROV: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Russian and Belarusian athletes have been allowed to play at Roland Garros under strict neutrality - no flags, no anthems. But Wimbledon, which starts later this month, has banned them.

JEAN-RENE LISNARD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Gracheva's coach, Jean-Rene Lisnard, says she's only 21, and she left Russia for France five years.

LISNARD: She's trying to do a job as good as she can, you know? It's just a shame for these players to be linked to that, you know? If we would have penalized every American players or French players or any country every time there's a war, some players would never play (laughter) right?

DAYANA YASTREMSKA: Hey. Hi. Thank you. I'm so sorry. I've just finished practice, and I came to the room.

BEARDSLEY: That's world No. 80, Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska, who's left Paris now and is playing in a grass court tournament in the Netherlands to prepare for Wimbledon. The 22-year-old had to flee her home in Odesa. She says playing in the French Open was difficult.

YASTREMSKA: You try to be focused on tennis, but you can do that only when you're on the court. Behind, you're all the time putting your focus on the news, and you're always trying to go to sleep with some thoughts about the peace, and you wake up with a very bad reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YASTREMSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In an interview broadcast on French television at the start of the French Open, Yastremska called on Russian players to denounce the war. Since the invasion, only one Russian player has reacted, writing no to war across a camera lens at a tournament in Dubai in February. Researcher Luca Aubain (ph) wrote a book about Russian President Vladimir Putin's use of sports as a geopolitical weapon.

LUCA AUBAIN: (Through interpreter) It's very difficult for a Russian athlete to be against the war because sports is patriotism in Russia. If you are against the war, you are a bad Russian. You are a traitor.

BEARDSLEY: Fans at the French Open are divided.

IMAD MEKHTOUM: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Wimbledon is wrong because these players are not on their national team. They're playing as individuals," says Imad Mekhtoum (ph). "So punishing them is unfair." But German fan Juergen Platz (ph) says Wimbledon got it right.

JUERGEN PLATZ: This is OK what the English guys do. With these Russian guys, I would do the same, exclude them, as long as the war is running.

BEARDSLEY: Ukrainian player Dayana Yastremska says maybe it is hard for Russian players to publicly denounce the war because of Putin, but they could at least acknowledge Ukrainians suffering in private.

YASTREMSKA: I think they could make some kind of meeting between all the Russians, Belarusian and Ukrainian players, at least something, you know. But they don't do anything.

BEARDSLEY: Yastremska says seeing the war at home and having to pretend like nothing is wrong in front of Russian players abroad is unbearable. She, too, believes Wimbledon made the right move. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.