Aryna Sabalenka cites mental health concerns after avoiding regular media duties

Aryna Sabalenka did not undertake her usual media duties at the French Open citing mental health concerns after her third-round win over Kamilla Rakhimova.

The second seed was involved in a tense exchange with a Ukrainian journalist on Wednesday over her previous support for Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.

“For many months now I have answered these questions at tournaments and been very clear in my feelings and my thoughts,” said Sabalenka.

“These questions do not bother me after my matches. I know that I have to provide answers to the media on things not related to my tennis or my matches but, on Wednesday, I did not feel safe in the press conference.

“I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches. For my own mental health and well-being, I have decided to take myself out of this situation today, and the tournament has supported me in this decision.

“It hasn’t been an easy few days, and now my focus is continue to play well here in Paris.”

Roland Garros organisers claimed Sabalenka talked to a hand-picked group of journalists in a ‘press conference’ after easing past Rakhimova 6-2 6-2, but it is understood all the questions were asked by a WTA employee.

It is not yet clear whether Sabalenka, who is through to the fourth round in Paris for the first time, will attend press conferences for the rest of the tournament.

The Australian Open champion was also asked questions about the war after her first-round victory over Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, who refused to shake her hand and was booed off court.

She said afterwards that all Russian and Belarusian athletes were against the war but refused to answer questions from the Ukrainian journalist on Wednesday.

Third seed Jessica Pegula also declined to do a press conference following the disappointment of her 6-1 6-3 loss to 28th seed Elise Mertens.

The American, whose preparations were disrupted by food poisoning, failed to make the quarter-finals for only the second time in the last six grand slams.

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, meanwhile, did not shake hands with Russian opponent Anna Blinkova at the end of her 2-6 6-2 7-5 victory.

Amid more booing from the crowd on Simonne Mathieu, Svitolina, who is married to French player Gael Monfils, gave a thumbs-up and exchanged a few words with Blinkova but did not offer her hand.

Svitolina, in her first grand slam tournament since giving birth to her daughter in October, will next play another Russian, Daria Kasatkina, who has been the most vocal of the Russian and Belarusian competitors in speaking out against the war.

Daria Kasatkina celebrates after beating Peyton Stearns
Daria Kasatkina, pictured, celebrates after beating Peyton Stearns (Jean-Francois Badias/AP)

“Can you imagine the guy or a girl who is right now on a front line looking at me and I’m acting like nothing is happening,” said Svitolina on her lack of handshake.

“I’m representing my country. I have a voice. I’m standing with Ukraine. I have my position in this war. What the Russian government or Russian soldiers are doing on our land is really, really terrible. It touches sport, it touches acting, it touches all different areas. We are all united, Ukrainians.

“I’m thankful to Dasha (Kasatkina) for taking this position. That’s what you expect from others, as well. It’s really brave from her.”

Sabalenka will next meet former runner-up Sloane Stephens, who battled to a 6-3 3-6 6-2 victory over Yulia Putintseva to reach the fourth round here for the ninth time.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, runner-up in 2021, has been working her way back from knee problems and she upset fellow Russian Anastasia Potapova 4-6 6-3 6-0.