Belarus tennis star Aryna Sabalenka outrightly condemned her country’s role in the war in Ukraine on Tuesday and insisted she is not a supporter of president Alexander Lukashenko. “I’m not supporting the war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko right now,” the world number two said after reaching the French Open semi-finals by defeating Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.
The 25-year-old had come under increasing pressure to distance herself from her close relationship with Lukashenko, a key military ally of Moscow in the ongoing conflict. “We played a lot of Fed Cups in Belarus. He (Lukashenko) was in our matches taking pictures with us after the match. But nothing bad was happening that time in Belarus or in Ukraine or in Russia,” she told reporters.
Sabalenka had cancelled two previous press conferences at Roland Garros, claiming she didn’t feel “safe” after facing a barrage of questions over her links to her country’s strongman leader. As Australian Open champion and potential world number one after the French Open, she was urged by Ukraine rivals to use her platform to individually stand up against the war.
“I don’t want my country to be involved in any conflict. I said it many times. You have my position. You have my answer,” she said. “I don’t want sport to be involved in politics, because I’m just a 25-year-old tennis player.”
Sabalenka has had close associations with Lukashenko in the past. In 2018, she requested a one-to-one meeting with him, according to Belarusian state news agency Belta.
The following year, in an interview with the country’s largest independent news site Tut.by — since shuttered following a brutal crackdown after historic demonstrations against Lukashenko — she spoke glowingly of the Belarusian leader. On December 31, 2020, after a year marked by the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations, Sabalenka toasted the new year with Lukashenko in Minsk.
‘I won’t sell my country’
At the end of Tuesday’s match, Svitolina chose not to shake the hand of Sabalenka, a common practice now in the sport when a Ukrainian player meets a Russian or Belarusian opponent.
Svitolina was booed by the crowd while Sabalenka stood in vain waiting at the net. “It just was an instinct like I always do after all my matches,” said Sabalenka of her decision to make the traditional approach to the net, insisting she had “big respect” for her opponent.
When asked if Sabalenka had inflamed the situation by staring her down, Svitolina replied: “Yeah, I think so, unfortunately.”
“I don’t know why she was waiting, because my statements were clear enough about the handshake,” added Svitolina, 28, who said she was not shocked by being jeered by a Paris crowd that 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. It was not a surprise for me.”
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. So is quite simple,” said Svitolina.
Svitolina said she and her compatriots will continue their stance in the grass court season which culminates at Wimbledon next month. “I won’t sell my country for the likes of people,” she said.
Svitolina also demanded Sabalenka be fined for refusing to attend press conferences following her third and fourth round matches in Paris.
Two years ago, former world number one Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 for not honouring French Open media commitments.
“It should be equal for everyone. I faced difficulties, I faced difficulty also with the question about Novak (Djokovic), about his statement about Kosovo. So I’m not escaping.”
She added: “I have my strong position, and I’m vocal about that. I’m not going try to win likeness of the people by betraying my strong belief and strongest position for my country.” Sabalenka justified boycotting media briefings, claiming she “felt really disrespected”, likening her opening appearances to “a political TV show”.
Her decision to return to the press room was taken partly to avoid reporters “putting words in my mouth”.
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