The Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati has been engulfed by a major storm after a fan draped in a Ukraine flag was told to leave a match between two Russian players.
A row erupted on social media after it emerged a woman, named Lola, had been confronted by umpire Morgane Lara during Sunday’s qualifying match between Anastasia Potapova and Anna Kalinskaya.
Video of the incident was also posted on Twitter.
Lola, who had also been wearing a Ukrainian floral wreath crown, later told reporters she had initially refused to leave but a security guard warned her the police would be called if she continued to do so.
She said Lara had initially stopped the match and spoken to the players before confronting her.
According to tennis writer Ben Rothenberg the umpire told her it was “not nice” to be sitting with the flag, to which she responded it was “not nice to invade a country”.
She later added in an interview with Local12 WKRC Cincinnati: “The message I got was that it is agitating Russian players. I said, ‘I’m not putting it away’. They kept playing for a minute or two. Then they stopped the game again and then the security guard came up to me and said, ‘Ma’am, I’m going to call the cops if you won’t leave’.”
She added: “We had our Ukrainian flag, not doing anything crazy, distracting players, but wrapped around, sitting there peacefully and quiet.”
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) August 15, 2022
According to Rothenberg, other spectators leapt to Lola’s defence, citing free speech and the “land of the free”, but to no avail.
Lola said that, after leaving the stands and while walking around the grounds with a Ukrainian friend, the same security guard asked her to remove the flag or leave the tournament, because the size of it breached ground regulations.
A tearful Lola, an American originally from Uzbekistan who lives near the tournament venue, added: “This is not Russia. This is United States of America.”
The Western & Southern Open said in a statement: “Flags or banners larger than 18 x 18 [inches] are prohibited.”
Asked about the reason the umpire gave for asking her to leave the court, a spokesperson replied: “Questions regarding a chair umpire need to be addressed to the WTA Tour.”
Rothenberg and Local 12 said the WTA Tour did not respond to requests for comment.
Ukrainian former world number 13 Alexandr Dolgopolov was among those to condemn the incident on Twitter.
Our country is drowning in blood and barbaric violence, no russian will bully a silent supporter wearing a Ukraine flag! Have some respect.
— Alex Dolgopolov (@TheDolgo) August 16, 2022
The president of the nonprofit Cincy4Ukraine, Eugenia Nemirovska de Santos, told Local 12: “Russian players come in and dictate here what US citizens can or cannot do? That kind of does not bode well with the Ukrainian community.”
Warning the tournament could now expect a surge in spectators carrying smaller Ukrainian flags and wearing blue and yellow clothing, she added: “You don’t like our flag? What if it’s our clothing? You’re going to ask us to take our clothes, too, off?”