If you watched even a few minutes of “Zabiiako & Kasatkina,” a video blog documenting the tennis life and travels of the world’s No. 9-ranked player Daria Kasatkina, you would see a young, happy woman with a sense of humor and generous soul who is completely comfortable in her own skin.
It would be unremarkable, if not for this: Last July, Kasatkina announced to the world that she was in a relationship with former Olympic figure skater Natalia Zabiiako. And that, also, might be unremarkable if not for this: She is the top-ranked player from Russia, where the LGBTQ+ community has been increasingly under attack to the point where positive depictions of same-sex relationships have been banned in any form of media.
Every famous athlete who comes out as LGBTQ+ has shown their own form of bravery, navigating highly personal stakes in an unusually public way. But during this Pride Month, it’s hard to imagine many have put more on the line than Kasatkina.
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She didn’t just come out as a lesbian, she criticized Russian attitudes toward gay people. She hasn’t just taken a general anti-war stance like so many Russian players, she has been vocally against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and expressed support for her Ukrainian colleagues. She has, essentially, defied Vladimir Putin.
“It’s really brave from her,” said Elina Svitolina, the Ukrainian star who will face Kasatkina on Sunday in the French Open round of 16.
Kasatkina, who trains in Barcelona, has reportedly not been back to Russia since the war began. It would perhaps be dangerous for her to go back. When asked last November by The New York Times what the feedback had been from her home country since coming out, she said: “Let’s not talk about it.”
And yet, despite all of it, the 26-year-old has enjoyed the embrace of the larger tennis world and the freedom of living authentically as she enters the prime years of her career.
“It’s not for the long term,” Kasatkina said of life in the closet last year during her interview with blogger Vitya Kravchenko. “It’s too hard. It’s pointless, you’ll be constantly focused on that until you choose to come out. Of course it’s up to you how you do it and how much to tell. Living in peace with yourself is the only thing that matters.”
Though a Russian government official suggested last year that Kasatkina had come out in order to facilitate a change of citizenship, the reality is that last year has been more of a turning point for her tennis.
Kasatkina was No. 26 in the world at the end of 2021 but shot up the rankings last summer with semifinal appearances at both the Italian Open and Roland Garros and in August won titles in San Jose and Granby, Canada, to jump into the top-10 and secure her place in the WTA Finals.
“I feel more free and happy,” she told the WTA web site last year. “I think I made the right step. With the situation in the world, all this stuff that is tough, when if not now?”
It is difficult to know how Kasatkina’s relationship with her home country will evolve, but public opinion polls show that younger Russians have more tolerant attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community.
By simply talking about her sexuality, Kasatkina is cracking doors of discussion that were largely closed during her adolescent years. She has talked frequently about her experience growing up in a small town several hundred miles from Moscow where there were no gay role models.
“So many subjects are taboo in Russia,” she told Kravchenko. “Some of them more important than ours, it’s no surprise. The notion of someone wanting to be gay or becoming is ridiculous. I think there is nothing easier in this world than being straight. Seriously if there was a choice, no one would choose to be gay. Why make your life harder, especially in Russia? What’s the point?”
This is the first time Kasatkina has celebrated Pride Month during Roland Garros. Though her focus is on tennis and trying to win her first Grand Slam title, she said it was significant to be in France at this time.
“I’m not used to it because I’m from somewhere where, it’s, you know, not a very nice thing,” Kasatkina told Eurosport. "In Europe, I feel like it’s something bigger. I think it’s important to let people know we’re all equal and all the same. There’s no difference. I’m going to support from my hotel room and from the tennis court but I think it’s very nice and very important that it is celebrated.”
It will be interesting to see whether there is a handshake between Kasatkina and Svitolina at the end of their match Sunday. Ukrainian players have been collectively declining the post-match gesture against Russian and Belarusian players. There have been a lot of complaints from Ukrainian players over the last year and a half that their Russian counterparts have not done enough publicly or privately to acknowledge that Russia’s actions against their country are wrong.
“Can you imagine the guy or a girl who is right now in the front line, looking at me and I’m acting like nothing is happening,” Svitolina told reporters after beating Anna Blinkova and refusing the handshake.
Kasatkina, however, has spoken directly about the toll of the conflict, which even the most sympathetic Russian players have mostly avoided either because they are sympathetic to the Putin regime or because they are afraid of the consequences of speaking out.
“I have so many friends and people I know from Ukraine,” Kasatkina told Melbourne’s The Age in January prior to the Australian Open. “And hearing the stories from what they’re telling me, it’s painful because I’m thinking what if I’m in their spots?
“They’re my friends and I want to show them love and support as well. It’s tough.”
The fact that Kasatkina can articulate how her own circumstances pale in comparison to their difficulties shows that the spirit of Pride — compassion, empathy, respect for people regardless of differences that they cannot control — lives in her authentically.
Playing in her first Grand Slam as an out lesbian during Pride Month, Kasatkina would be a worthy champion in every way.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Daria Kasatkina puts it all on the line at French Open by coming out