WIMBLEDON, England — Iga Swiatek, cap still pulled low after her latest victory, was sitting in a players café perched high above the All England Club and the grass she is still learning to love.
From her table on Thursday evening, there was a sweeping, soothing vista of privileged people enjoying their privileges, but Swiatek’s focus was elsewhere. It was on the war in Ukraine and on the exhibition match that she had announced a day earlier to help raise money 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-match winning streak, it is the latest sign that she wants to use her new and rapidly expanding platform to do much more than sell shoes and pile up Instagram followers.
“It’s a new position that I’m in, and I’m trying to use it the best way possible,” Swiatek said. “But I still haven’t figured out how to use it the best way, you know? But for sure, I want to show my support.”
“I’ve been really emotional about it,” she said of the war.
Poland, which borders Ukraine, has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees, but Swiatek, whose job takes her to five continents, is concerned that too much of the rest of the world is moving on, along with some of her fellow players.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, many players began wearing ribbons on court that were blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine’s national flag. At this stage, 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’m traveling, I can see there is not a lot of news about it,” Swiatek said. “For sure, there was at the beginning, but later 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 a long memory. But, I mean, lives are at stake so I think we should remind people.”
“But that’s just talking, I suppose,” she said. “Right now, I’m pretty happy that we are making some action.”
The exhibition will feature a match between Swiatek and the retired Polish tennis star Agnieszka Radwanska and raise funds in support of children and teenagers affected by the war in Ukraine. Elina Svitolina, Ukraine’s most successful current player who is pregnant and off the tour for the moment, will serve as a chair umpire. Sergiy Stakhovsky, a former Ukrainian men’s star now in the Ukrainian army, will play doubles with Radwanska against Swiatek and a Polish partner.
Wimbledon has, of course, taken action, too, generating great debate in the game as the only Grand Slam tennis tournament to bar Russian and Belarusian players because of the invasion. The All England Club made the move, a wrenching one, under some pressure to act from the British government, but the club stuck by its position despite being stripped of ranking points by the men’s and women’s tours.
Swiatek would have liked more consultation between the leaders of the tour and the entire player group on the decision to strip points, although the WTA player council, with its elected representatives, was deeply involved in the process.
“I wasn’t really focused on points before, because we should talk about war and people suffering and not about points,” Swiatek said. “But for sure, when I think about that, it seems like right now for the winners, and for people who are winning and really working hard, it’s not going to be fair.”
British public opinion polls have reflected support for Wimbledon’s ban even if the other big events in tennis, including the U.S. Open, have not followed Wimbledon’s lead, maintaining that individual athletes should not be punished for the actions of their governments.
Swiatek’s counterpart on the men’s tour: the No. 1 ranked Daniil Medvedev, a charismatic and polyglot Russian, is not in London and is instead training (and golfing) 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, also have been barred.
The ban has been met with mixed reactions on tour, both publicly and privately, but Swiatek, after much deliberation, can see Wimbledon’s perspective.
“I think it’s the only way to show that it’s wrong, having war, and their aggression is wrong,” she said.
“It’s not fair, for sure, sometimes for these players,” she said of the barred group. “But we are public, and we have impact. That’s why we are making a lot of money also. We are sometimes on TV everywhere, and sports has been in politics. I know people want to separate that, and I also would like to kind of not be involved in every aspect of politics, but in these kind of matters it is, and you can’t help it sometimes.”
Wimbledon has not emphasized the Russian and Belarusian ban during the tournament, but it has invited all Ukrainian refugees who have settled in the area near Wimbledon to attend the tournament on Sunday.
The most eloquent opponents of the Russian invasion of Ukraine during the tournament have been its players, including Lesia Tsurenko, the last Ukrainian left in singles, who lost in the third round on Friday to Jule Niemeier of Germany.
All of the leading Ukrainian players have had to leave the country to continue their careers. Some like Anhelina Kalinina are still living out of suitcases and using tournament sites as training bases, but Tsurenko has finally been able to rent an apartment in Italy and is often training alongside Marta Kostyuk, another talented Ukrainian player, at the tennis center operated by the longtime Italian coach Riccardo Piatti in Bordighera.
“A small town by the sea,” Tsurenko said. “And sometimes, when you are just eating great food and having amazing Italian espresso, and you see that you are surrounded by beautiful nature, for some moments you forget and you’re relaxed, and you think, oh, the life is good. But it’s just seconds. It’s very tough for me to explain to you, and I hope the people will never feel this, but it’s just like some part of me is just always so tight. And I think it will be a big release when the war will finish, but not before.”
Swiatek, raised in a family of modest means in the suburbs of Warsaw, cannot fully grasp what the Ukrainians are experiencing, but she can sympathize, and she is increasingly determined to act. She, like Naomi Osaka before her and the 18-year-old American Coco Gauff, are part of a new wave of WTA stars who have made it clear that they do not intend to stick simply to sports. Gauff has been vocal in recent weeks about gun violence and about the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 who remains an activist on many fronts, has been watching Swiatek and Gauff find their voices.
“Socially, the awareness from 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 is still navigating how and where to use her clout, but she is all in on July 23 in Krakow.
“For me, it’s really important,” she said. “It’s like a fifth Grand Slam.”