Daria Kasatkina, Russia’s highest-ranked female tennis player, has come out as gay and criticized the war in Ukraine in an unusually candid interview that highlighted the difficulties top athletes face in navigating the repercussions of the conflict — both at home and abroad.
Kasatkina — the world No. 12 in women’s tennis — said she wanted “the war to end,” and described the conflict as “a full-blown nightmare.”
She said there “hadn’t been a single day since February 24,” when Russia invaded Ukraine, that she hadn’t read or thought about the war. She expressed empathy for Ukrainian players affected by the war.
“I want to play against players who have an opportunity to train and prepare for tournaments just like me, who don’t need to worry about courts being bombed and [having] nowhere to go,” she added. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to have no home — not because you haven’t bought it, but because your home was taken away.”
Kasatkina is the latest Russian athlete to speak out against the war, in defiance of laws in Russia that ban anyone from criticizing what officials there call Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several other Russian tennis players have called for an end to the war, including the men’s No. 8 Andrey Rublev — though many have done so in more vague terms than Kasatkina.
Acknowledging the significance of the stance she was taking, Kasatkina broke down in tears in one of the videos when she was asked if she was scared she would no longer be able to go back to Russia, admitting it was something she had considered.
During the interview, Kasatkina also revealed that she has a girlfriend — a significant move given that LGBTQ issues are taboo in Russia, where it has been illegal for nearly a decade to disseminate information to minors about “nontraditional sexual relationships” including gay relationships.
“I believe it’s important that influential people from sports, or any other sphere really, speak about it,” she said, adding that “living in the closet” would be too difficult in the long term. “It’s pointless, you’ll be constantly focused on that, until you choose to come out,” she said, although she added that it was up to each person “how to do it and how much to tell.”
She later posted a photo on social media with the figure skater Natalia Zabiiako — who has competed for Russia, Estonia and Canada — and the caption “my cutie pie.”
Last year, the U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House gave Russia a score of zero when it comes to the equal treatment of minorities, including gay people, in society. “LGBT+ people are also subject to considerable discrimination, which has worsened in the last decade,” the group wrote in its report.
Just two years ago, a constitutional amendment was passed defining marriage exclusively as between a man and a woman. Russia has also banned pro-LGBTQ demonstrations and restricted LGBTQ advocacy groups.
When asked when she thought it would be acceptable for a same-sex couple to hold hands in public in Russia, Kasatkina answered: “Never.”
Kasatkina also touched on the global debate about the inclusion of Russian and Belorussian athletes in major sporting events, after many international sports competitions banned them in response to the war in Ukraine. Tennis players have been allowed to compete in many major tournaments so long as they stay neutral on the conflict — and they cannot compete under their national flags.
However, in a move that later proved controversial in tennis, Wimbledon banned Russian and Belorussian athletes from competing altogether — including Kasatkina, and many of the world’s top male and female players.
While not explicitly giving an opinion on the ban, Kasatkina said that “sports is not outside of politics,” but added that they “really unite” people and nations.