World tennis number two Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka has said she does not support the war in Ukraine and the stance of her country’s president on it, as she resumed her media duties at the French Open.
Belarus is a close ally of Russia that allowed Moscow’s forces to use its territory as a launching pad for the February 2022 invasion.
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After winning her quarterfinal (6-4, 6-4) in Paris against Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina on Tuesday, Sabalenka told reporters she is “not an expert in politics” in response to being questioned about the war.
“I don’t want my country to be in any conflict; I don’t support the war,” Sabalenka said at the news conference. “I don’t support war, meaning I don’t support [Belarusian President] Alexander Lukashenko right now.”
Sabalenka had not attended her two previous news conferences following her third and fourth round matches last week, citing mental health reasons and saying she did not feel safe after being grilled about the invasion.
“I really felt bad not coming here. I couldn’t sleep. Like all those bad feelings was in my head, I couldn’t fall asleep,” Sabalenka explained, although she said she did not regret opting out of her media duties.
“I don’t regret the decisions. I felt really disrespected, and I felt really bad. I mean, Grand Slam, it’s enough pressure to handle, and I just tried to focus on myself, on my game,” added the 25-year-old, who could clinch the women’s world number one spot at the French Open.
“I really hope that you guys will understand me, my feelings. You know that I really respect all of you … You can ask whatever you want. You will get all the information.
“But in the last press conference, I felt like my press conference became a political TV show, and I’m not expert in politics. I’m just a tennis player.”
Earlier, Sabalenka was criticised by Svitolina for approaching the net in expectation of a post-match handshake that the Ukrainian had already insisted she was not going to offer.
Ukrainian players typically refuse to shake hands with Russian and Belarusian rivals in protest at the war.
As expected, Svitolina ignored Sabalenka, who was leaning on the net before calmly walking back to her chair.
When asked if Sabalenka had inflamed the situation by standing at the net, Svitolina replied: “Yeah, I think so, unfortunately.”
“I don’t know why she was waiting, because my statements were clear enough about the handshake,” she said.
The 28-year-old Svitolina, however, was jeered by a Paris crowd who had taken her to their hearts following her marriage to French player Gael Monfils.
“I was expecting that. Whoever in this situation loses, I guess, gets booed, so I was expecting that. It was not a surprise for me,” Svitolina said.
Sabalenka had defeated another Ukrainian, Marta Kostyuk, in the first round. Kostyuk also refused to shake hands and she too was booed.
“Maybe she’s [Sabalenka] not on social media during the tournament, but it is pretty clear. She played Marta as well the first round. So is quite simple,” Svitolina said.
The Ukrainian added she and her compatriots will continue their stance.
“I won’t sell my country for the likes of people,” she said.
To win this war, we Ukrainians remain UNITED. On the battlefield and on the tennis court 🇺🇦✊🏼 https://t.co/xH1GIMySWb
— Elina Monfils (@ElinaSvitolina) June 2, 2023
Politics takes centre stage
Svitolina said Sabalenka should also be fined for refusing to attend the mandatory news conferences after her previous two matches.
Two years ago, former world number one Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 for not honouring her French Open media commitments.
“It should be equal for everyone. For example, Naomi got fined last time and this time there is no fine for the player, who also skips the press conference,” said Svitolina.
“I faced difficulties, I faced difficulty also with the question about Novak [Djokovic], about his statement about Kosovo. So I’m not escaping.”
“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence,” the world number three and winner of 22 Grand Slam titles wrote on a camera lens in Serbian, following his first-round victory against Aleksandar Kovacevic, from the United States.
His comments were criticised by sports officials in France and Kosovo, who accused him of promoting “Serbian nationalists’ propaganda”.