Gauff, Nadal play in US Open exhibition to benefit Ukraine

Sports

NEW YORK (AP) — Coco Gauff’s shoes carried the message “Play for Peace” as she joined Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek and other tennis stars in a pre-U.S. Open exhibition event Wednesday night that helped generate more than $1 million for humanitarian assistance in Ukraine.

“You guys all know me: I like to speak out when it’s right,” Gauff said after teaming with former player John McEnroe in a mixed doubles match against Nadal and Swiatek. “I’m glad that I was able to be a part of this.”

The U.S. Tennis Association said 100% of proceeds from sales of tickets to its “Tennis Plays for Peace Exhibition” in Louis Armstrong Stadium went to an international nonprofit organization. Other players participating included Ukrainian pros Dayana Yastremska and Katarina Zavatska, 2021 U.S. Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, Carlos Alcarez, Maria Sakkari, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Jessica Pegula.

“It really means a lot to see so many people supporting Ukraine,” Zavatska told the crowd, noting that it was her country’s Independence Day. “I really hope and I wish that next year we will celerbate this day in freedom.”

Tournament director Stacey Allaster said $1.2 million was raised as part of the USTA’s effort to generate at least $2 million to benefit Ukraine by the end of the U.S. Open, which starts Monday.

“The daily fighting goes on. … So every dollar that Ukraine can get is a life saved, a child fed,” said Sergiy Stakhovsky, a former pro player from Ukraine.

Earlier in the day, two-time major champion and former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka was dropped from the exhibition. Azarenka is from Belarus, which helped Russia launch its invasion of Ukraine in February. At least one Ukrainian tennis player, Marta Kostyuk, questioned having a Belarusian player participate Wednesday night.

The USTA issued a statement Wednesday, saying: “In the last 24 hours, after careful consideration and dialogue with all parties involved, Victoria Azarenka will not be participating … this evening. Vika is a strong player leader and we appreciate her willingness to participate. Given the sensitivities to Ukrainian players, and the ongoing conflict, we believe this is the right course of action for us.”

Azarenka and all players representing Russia or Belarus were banned from entering Wimbledon — which was held in June and July — because of the invasion of Ukraine. The USTA announced in June that it would allow those athletes to compete in the U.S. Open.

Azarenka won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, and was the runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2012, 2013 and 2020.

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