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The familiar line between sunlight and darkness had begun to fall across Stadium Court at Roland Garros, signaling the evening was coming. Just another obstacle for Elina Svitolina and Daria Kasatkina to navigate, two warriors fighting with everything they had to survive the round of 16 and make it to the coveted quarter-finals. Svitolina, unranked but with top-20 world pedigree, was working her way back to elite form after recently giving birth. Kasatkina, currently the world’s 9th ranked player, should have been favored to win. She’d made her first semi-final appearance here in Paris just last year, and had played solidly through this clay court season.

But Kasatkina had something else working against her.

She hails from a place the world has come to see as synonymous with aggression, misinformation, and evil. And as their top ranked player, she carries that burden with every stroke of her racket. Her opponent, a Ukrainian, has publicly taken the stand that there would be no handshakes or pleasantries with any Russian or Belarusian competitors who represent that occupying regime that is every day further destroying her country without provocation.

With the entire crowd behind her, Svitolina played inspired tennis early and took the first set.

The swirling wind, the difficult optics of the setting sun, and a second serve that lacked its usual snap all conspired to make the comeback Kasatkina faced seem uphill. But the real gut punch was the hostility of the crowd, openly rooting against her at every turn, painting her with the same brush the world paints Vladimir Putin. Despite making an eloquent pre-tournament statement declaring the war horrible and unjust, and expressing deep understanding and respect for her Ukrainian opponent’s decision not to acknowledge her, it was not enough to spare her from this hostile reception.

But Kasatkina began to find a rhythm by counter-punching.

After going down a second-set early break, she broke back. And a slugfest began, where both fighters found they could not knock out the other. And as the sun set and the tension built, Svitolina and an entire stadium full of supporters traded punches with the very alone Russian. The set would lumber to a tie-break, which would play to an even, very tense 5-5. As much as the stadium crowd, and perhaps the entire world, would relish a symbolic trouncing of any symbol of Russia, this was still anyone’s match.

Finally, up 6-5 and after a long rally, Kasatkina sprayed a final groundstroke long. It was over.

An overjoyed crowd erupted in adoring love and support for Svitolina and for her suffering country. I don’t know if Kasatkina mentally prepared for this moment, as elite competitors must spend every critical moment just before losing striving to win. With all eyes on Svitolina, tearfully twirling decidedly toward the cheering crowd and away from the net, Kasatkina managed the moment with uncommon grace and dignity. There would be no warm embrace. So much that could or should be said that would not be. Instead, Kasatkina quietly acknowledged the line judge, then turned Svitolina’s way, and gave her a competitors salute. A “thumbs-up” with an expression that conveyed what words could not.

Kasatkina recently came out as gay.

Thankfully (and finally) in the United States and in most parts of the free world, that fact might no longer be particularly newsworthy. But when you hail from Russia, where homophobia runs rampant, and the human rights of those who espouse to live their truth in a way that the majority simply does not choose to understand or acknowledge, that truth can be dangerous.

But Kasatkina went even further. She didn’t just come out. She took the opportunity to use her public profile to call out the Russian government for their hostility toward the LGBTQ community. That stance, coupled with her very outspoken opposition to the war in Ukraine, prevents Kasatkina from safely going home to visit her parents, whom she has not seen since before the war began. Openly speaking truth to power, something we take for granted in this country, has cost Kasatkina everything.

In the post-match press conference, Svitolina referred to her Russian opponent this way:

She’s a brave one.”

Kasatkina left Paris disappointed, and perhaps a little bitter as the roughing up she got from the crowd. Here is what she said at the presser:

“Be better. Love each other. Don’t spread hate. Try to make this world better. I will love RG (Roland Garros) no matter what, always and forever. See you next year.”

It takes brave people to move society forward.

Be a brave one!

Devin Householder

Devin is passionate about writing, reading and remaining in emotionally harmful relationships with losing sports teams. He suffers quietly (except on Sundays) with his loving wife and daughter in Rhode Island.

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