PARIS: Aryna Sabalenka would like to just speak about tennis, but as the war in Ukraine goes on and she struggles to distance herself from links to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, she has decided to stop talking at the French Open.
Sabalenka, in the Roland Garros quarter-finals for the first time, has skipped the press conference after her past two matches, and there is nothing to suggest that will change after she plays Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina in a politically-charged duel on Tuesday.
Sabalenka’s reason for opting out of her media duties is that she “did not feel safe” after she fended off a series of tough questions over her stance on the war as well as her links to the government in Belarus.
The world number two did not comment on reports she supports Lukashenko and refused to “flatly condemn” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when asked by a reporter after her second-round win last week.
Belarus is a key military ally of Russia in the conflict.
“She left two press conferences very affected,“ said tournament director Amelie Mauresmo, who is allowing Sabalenka to skip her obligatory media commitments for now.
- ‘The president supports sport’ -
Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk was booed by the crowd after refusing to shake Sabalenka’s hand in the first round.
Kostyuk, who has refused to shake the hands of Russian and Belarusian players since the invasion of her country, said she had no respect for Sabalenka for not individually denouncing the role of Belarus in the war.
Beyond her nationality, Sabalenka is paying for her association with Lukashenko in the past. In 2018, she requested a one-to-one meeting with Lukashenko, 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 over the Belarusian leader.
“Obviously it’s good to be born in a country where the president supports sport like no one else and is ready to help in difficult times. It’s priceless,“ she said, going so far as to consider Lukashenko like a “member of my team”.
On December 31, 2020, after a year marked by the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus, Sabalenka toasted in the new year with Lukashenko in Minsk.
Lukashenko praised Sabalenka when she won the Australian Open in January.
There is a question over the public relations boost provided by such a high-profile sportswoman performing so well internationally.
“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t help,“ Sabalenka replied when asked in April in Stuttgart if Lukashenko’s comments made her unpopular.
“I don’t know what to say because he can comment on my matches, he can comment on whatever he wants,“ she added.
She has faced down questions over the war in Ukraine throughout the French Open.
On the eve of the tournament, she said it was “OK if Ukrainians hate me”.
Kostyuk said that as a potential world number one, Sabalenka had a duty to speak out on the war.
“Just by speaking out, I think she can just send some message,“ said Kostyuk.
But Sabalenka insists she has been clear.
“Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes support the war, nobody,“ she said.
“Normal people will never support it. I’ve said it many times: no Russian or Belarusian player supports the war,“ she added. -AFP