Tennis has opened up the world to me. It’s not only a great sport, but also one that stands for equality and human rights. It’s fascinating how, through my career, I've met so many people from different walks of life. Their stories are all unique; you just have to be willing to listen.
That exposure to different cultures, races, and sexual orientations has undoubtedly made me a better person, one who does not accept bigotry against anyone - for who they are or who they love.
I feel like I experienced a transformation when it came to my own point of view from when I started traveling on the WTA to now, and it was through the WTA that such an evolution was possible.
Before I started traveling, I was a child of my culture. As Russians, we’re not exposed to a lot of progressive ideas. Russia is just not a liberal place. The church’s influence is very strong and things are very old-fashioned. There’s just not this level of acceptance that you might see in the West.
I’ve always been pretty outgoing, so I would have never been a bigot to a gay person, but I still had certain ideas about marriage and sex. As I rose up the rankings, I met Louise Pleming, a former player who was, at the time, working as a commentator. She became a sort of mentor to me, giving me communications advice, teaching me how to frame answers and develop my media identity.
She would keep up with me as well, check up on my tennis and how things were going in my career, because I was still very new on the tour and things were so crazy. I found such a good friend in her, and it took me maybe six or seven years to realize that she had a partner, who was a woman. Somehow it never came up. Once I realized she was gay, I started talking to her about things to do with marriage and adoption. I felt comfortable because I knew her so well, and later got to know her partner, Gail, as well, and it made me realize that, of course they would be capable parents who would love a child more than anything. It gave me a new perspective.
It might not say much about me that I had to have a personal experience, meeting and befriending an LGBTQ person, to become fully accepting of the idea, but some people have to go through that, and now I understand why marriage and adoption rights are so important, and how limiting it was for Louise not to have had them with Gail.
It broke my heart to learn all of the intricacies of what being married actually means, because before I was looking at it more as a religious ceremony and less as something that grants a couple so many rights, both social and bureaucratic. It turned my world upside down at 23 years old, and completely changed my mind about so many aspects of life that I simply overlooked because I never had to deal with them myself.
In the beginning of my career, there was probably more instances of casual homophobia in the locker room. A lot has changed in 15 years – I can’t believe I’ve been on tour that long! - and now we’re much more accepting.
I remember the backlash from a player who said he wouldn’t want his daughter to play tennis for fear of her becoming a lesbian. Everyone across the tour condemned the comments, and it felt sort of uniting. In a strange way, someone saying something so unacceptable can shock people into re-examining their own prejudices, and change their perspectives.
Perspectives still need changing, especially now when it comes to race and racism. Growing up, I never thought of racism as the systemic issue that it is in the United States, especially in big, developed cities like New York and Los Angeles. It wasn't until I began working and traveling with an African American coach, and every time we drove together in a car, we would get pulled over. There was a time where he was even strip-searched. I was the foreigner coming to his country, and he was the one being treated with suspicion. It made me keenly aware of my own privilege, and want to speak out about how Black Lives Matter.
If you do nothing, and just watch things develop from the sidelines, things will never get better. I’ve made donations to causes I care about, but I have to be more vocal because that’s the only way to achieve big change. In the past I might have been afraid to hurt feelings, but this is the time to stop being afraid of things like that.
Human rights are human rights.
From an interview with David Kane.