Aryna Sabalenka denounces war in Ukraine after Marta Kostyuk's handshake snub

Marta Kostyuk was booed by the crowd as she ignored victor Aryna Sabalenka after he defeat in Paris - Getty Images
Marta Kostyuk was booed by the crowd as she ignored victor Aryna Sabalenka after he defeat in Paris - Getty Images

Aryna Sabalenka and Marta Kostyuk were embroiled in a bitter row over the war in Ukraine after their tense first-round match at Roland Garros.

There was controversy at the end of world No.2 Sabalenka's straight sets win on Sunday, when the crowd turned on her Ukrainian opponent for failing to shake her hand.

Australian Open champion Sabalenka, who is Belarusian, has previously said she opposes war in general, but ahead of the tournament said she thought politics and sport should not mix. With political tensions spilling over during Sunday's match, Sabalenka — who will become world No.1 if she wins Roland Garros — gave her strongest denouncement yet of Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, which her home country of Belarus is helping to support.

"First of all, when I get the question about Ukrainians, they ask me, like, So you know that they hate you? So I'm answering the question that if they hate me, like I don't feel anything like that," she said during a fraught press conference. "About the war situation, I said it many, many times: Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody, normal people will never support it. Why we have to go loud and say that things... Of course we don't support war. If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could like stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it's not in our hands."

But Kostyuk, 20, was not impressed when presented with Sabalenka's words: "She never says that she personally doesn't support this war," she said. "I feel like you should ask these players who would they want to win because if you ask this question, I'm not so sure these people will say that they want Ukraine to win.

Kostyuk was outspoken during her post-match conference - Getty Images/Robert Prange
Kostyuk was outspoken during her post-match conference - Getty Images/Robert Prange

"She should talk for herself I think, first of all. Then, talk about all the other athletes because I personally know athletes from tennis that support the war. To say nobody is a little bit strong because I think you can only speak for yourself.

"She might be World No.1 after this tournament, in one of the most known sports in the world. Someone like Aryna, who is traveling the world, who has a big platform of people who support her. There are so many platforms that millions, billions of people in the world read. And just to reject her responsibility of having an opinion on the most important things in the world, I cannot respect it."

It was a fairly straightforward 6-3, 6-2 win for Sabalenka, 25, but all eyes were on the match on Philippe-Chatrier Court due to the Belarus-Ukraine match-up.

Previously, Kostyuk has avoided shaking the hand of Russian and Belarusian opponents due to the ongoing conflict in her home country. In anticipation, there was no customary photo at the net at the start of the match and, as expected, Kostyuk did not approach the net to address Sabalenka at the end either.

The crowd took umbrage with the slight, booing her loudly as she packed up her things and walked off the court. Bizarrely, Sabalenka thought the jeers were directed at her and sarcastically bowed, before asking the umpire, "Was that for me? They're booing me?" After getting clarification from the umpire and members of her box, who implored her to thank the crowd, Sabalenka then did so and drew applause.

Sabalenka apologised on court and said the match was "tough emotionally". Speaking in her press conference after, she said Kostyuk did not deserve to be booed: "I don't think so. I understand why they are not shaking hands with us... I think she don't [sic] deserve to leave the court that way."

Kostyuk said that the crowd should "be embarrassed" about their booing, especially considering Kyiv — where her father and grandfather still live — suffered a record 54-drone Russian attack on Saturday night. "What happened today, I have to say I didn't expect it," she said of the crowd. "People should be honestly embarrassed. I want to see people react to it in 10 years when the war is over. I think they will not feel really nice about what they did.

"I checked my phone last night at 5:00 in the morning, and I saw everything that's going on [in Kyiv]. It's part of my life. It's something I cannot describe probably. I try to put my emotions aside any time I go out on court."

Despite the frosty reception in Paris, Kostyuk said she expected a better experience at Wimbledon, where organisers are providing two rooms for Ukrainian players and their teams, plus practice facilities and a daily stipend. "I think given the fact that none of Ukrainian players can go back home, I feel like this was supposed to be encouraged by all the tournaments," she said. "It just makes me believe that there are good people in this world left, you know."