Aryna Sabalenka voices opposition to Belarus president in dramatic French Open press conference

Belarus's Aryna Sabalenka - Frey/TPN/Getty Images
Belarus's Aryna Sabalenka - Frey/TPN/Getty Images

Belarusian tennis star Aryna Sabalenka made a dramatic return from her six-day press conference blackout, as she told reporters she doesn’t support her president Alexander Lukashenko over the war in Ukraine.

This is a brave stance for any Belarusian athlete to take, for Lukashenko – who has been photographed with Sabalenka in the past – is a hardline dictator who expects loyalty from his subjects.

Sabalenka’s press conference drew the largest audience of the fortnight at Roland Garros. She had skipped most of her media duties after her previous two victories, as a direct result of some feisty questioning from a part-time Ukrainian reporter who had themselves become a refugee from occupied Luhansk. In her explanation for that decision – which recalled Naomi Osaka’s own retreat from the interview room two years ago – Sabalenka had said (via tour staff working for the Women’s Tennis Association) that “I did not feel safe in press conference”.

Returning to the usual post-match routine after her 6-4, 6-4 victory over Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, Sabalenka was asked to expand on her reasoning.

“I felt disrespected,” she replied. “I felt like journalists try to put the words in my mouth. I didn’t feel comfortable. All those bad feelings were in my head, I couldn’t fall asleep. I felt really bad not coming here.

“I felt like my press conference became a political TV show, and I’m not expert in politics. I’m just a tennis player. I had few days to switch off from the press conference, few days to bring myself together, few days to realise a couple of things. Yeah, that’s why I feel safer. And nobody’s putting words in my mouth, so that’s another reason.”

There was no sense that political issues were off the table. Sabalenka faced repeated questioning about her stance on the war, and in the process she found herself going further than she had in any previous interview. Asked whether she supported Lukashenko, she replied: “It’s a tough question. I mean, I don’t support war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko right now.”

Political issues have followed Sabalenka throughout her French Open campaign, starting from the moment when she faced Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk in her opening match on May 28.

On Tuesday, she found herself in a similar situation against Svitolina. The contest ended in unedifying style as the Parisian crowd booed Svitolina for turning down the usual post-match handshake. Afterwards, Svitolina said that Sabalenka had inflamed the situation by marching forward and leaning on the net-tape, as if unaware that all Ukrainian players are boycotting handshakes with players from the aggressor nations, Russia and Belarus.

Earlier, Svitolina had sounded unimpressed by Sabalenka’s march forward to the net – and subsequent pause, leaning on the tape – after the final point had been played. “I don’t know, to be fair, what she was waiting [for],” said Svitolina, “because my statements were clear enough about the handshake.”

Asked whether she believed that Sabalenka’s actions had exacerbated the situation, Svitolina replied: “Yeah, I think so, unfortunately.”

But she also admitted that she hadn’t been surprised by the crowd’s reaction. “Whoever in this situation loses, I guess, gets booed,” said Svitolina. “I was expecting that.”

Asked why she had gone up and hovered around the net, the Belarussian replied: “I don’t know. It just was an instinct like I always do after all my matches.”

Elina Svitolina (left) and Aryna Sabalenka - Getty Images/Clive Brunskill
Elina Svitolina (left) and Aryna Sabalenka - Getty Images/Clive Brunskill

The fans had behaved themselves during the contest itself. While play was going on, they offered more cheers to Svitolina than to her opponent, probably because Svitolina – who came in with a world ranking of 192 – was the underdog.

It never seemed likely, however, that second seed Sabalenka would be upset. She was on top throughout, pummeling the ball relentlessly, and forcing Svitolina to perform endless shuttle runs simply to stay in the rallies.

In the interview room, Svitolina also queried why Sabalenka has been allowed to skip the usual post-match media commitments over the last few days.

“Definitely I think it should be equal for everyone,” Svitolina said. “Like, for example, why Naomi [Osaka] got fined last time and this time there is no fine for the player, which also skip the press conference.

“I faced difficulty also with the question about Novak [Djokovic], about his statement about Kosovo. So, you know, I’m not escaping. I have my strong position, and I’m vocal about that. I’m not gonna try to win likes of the people by betraying my strong belief and strongest position for my country.”

Svitolina repeated this point when asked whether she expected English crowds to react differently when she competes on the grass.

“The support that we got from UK was massive, and especially taking the case of Wimbledon last year,” she said. “To be fair, I’m not really focusing on this [the crowd reaction]. As I mentioned before, I don’t want that everyone likes me. You know, I’m not a dollar that people gonna like me in every way.”

Svitolina v Sabalenka: As it happened...

02:09 PM

More from Sabalenka

I practiced a lot on the clay when I was a kid, more than on the hard court. I really enjoy playing here and I want to stay here as long as I can and play my best tennis and entertain you guys.

I like to have a day off to switch off and forget about tennis for a bit and enjoy the city. I like to have the day off for recovery and switching off.

02:07 PM

Sabalenka reacts

She’s [Elina Sviotlina] such a tough opponent, moves well and it’s impressive, big respect to her. It was a tough match so I’m super happy with the win. The atmosphere was amazing so thanks everyone for the support. We all know that you’re waiting for Novak [Djokovic] but I’ll take it [the applause] like it’s for me!

It’s better to focus on myself and my game. If I feel like I have to go for my shots then I will go for it and I have tactics but it depends on the game and the score in the game. I focus on myself mostly.

01:51 PM

Twitter reacts

01:49 PM

No handshake

Sabalenka stands at the net, waiting for Svitolina but she walks straight to her chair. The crowd boos.

Commentators on Eurosport say Svitolina may have given a thumbs-up to Sabalenka.

As Svitolina walks off the court quickly, she is booed again.

A reminder - Svitolina has not been shaking hands with players from Russian and Belarus.

01:47 PM

Svitolina* 4-6, 4-6 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Sabalenka backhand long, 0-15. The crowd cheers the error. Wild forehand by Sabalenka now, 0-30.

The pressure is starting to get to the Belarusian. Massive forehand winner by Sabalenka, 15-30.

Another wide serve followed by a forehand winner for Sabalenka, 30-30. Svitolina forehand return wide, match point.

Sabalenka forehand clips the net cord and the ball flies wide, deuce. Great hustle by Svitolina but eventually her sliced forehand drops long, second match point.

Sabalenka forehand winner, GAME SET MATCH SABALENKA. 

01:42 PM

Svitolina 4-6, 4-5 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

Sabalenka is playing her usual hard-hitting tennis in this game but too many errors allows Svitolina to hold to love.

Final chance for Svitolina to keep herself in the match coming up!

01:39 PM

Svitolina* 4-6, 3-5 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Controlled power from Sabalenka and finishes with a forehand winner, 15-0.

Big first serve by Sabalenka, she moves up to the short return and blast a backhand away for a winner, 40-15.

Defensive backhand into the net by Svitolina and Sabalenka holds again.

01:36 PM

Svitolina 4-6, 3-4 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

Wild forehand long by Svitolina, who is starting to overhit now in a bid to keep up with Sabalenka.

Svitolina just misses the line with a backhand down the line, 30-30.

Svitolina’s turn to attack the net, Sabalenka has a look at a backhand down the line but misses.

Vital hold for Svitolina.

01:32 PM

Svitolina* 4-6, 2-4 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Svitolina takes control of the rally and carefully sends a backhand down the line that Sabalenka nets, 30-15.

Back-to-back forehand errors by Svitolina and Sabalenka consolidates the break.

Not sure Svitolina has enough to fight back here.

01:28 PM

Svitolina 4-6, 2-3 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

Stunning forehand winner on the run from Sabalenka, 15-30. She then steps in and hammers a forehand winner into the corner, 40-15.

Svitolina saves the first when Sabalenka’s forehand goes long. Then the second when Sabalenka miscues a backhand return, deuce.

Double fault Svitolina, break point. A tense backhand into the net from Sabalenka. This could be a decisive game.

No easy service games for Svitolina today. All out aggression and depth from Sabalenka and Svitolina can’t get the ball back in play. Fourth break point.

And after nine minutes, Sabalenka finally breaks through when Svitolina can’t get a defensive backhand back into play.

01:18 PM

Svitolina* 4-6, 2-2 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Pure survival mode for Svitolina as she tries to hang on against Sabalenka. But a double fault by Sabalenka means a huge point is coming up.

Svitolina has a look at passing Sabalenka but puts her backhand wide, 40-30. Another Sabalenka double fault, deuce.

Sabalenka holds and brings herself on level terms with a forehand winner.

01:11 PM

Svitolina 4-6, 2-1 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

Back comes Sabalenka with even more power and she earns a break point with a forehand winner down the line.

But she squanders it but netting a forehand, deuce.

Huge “come on” from Sabalenka after a forehand winner down the line, second break point.

Another loose forehand by Sabalenka and Svitolina holds on. The wind picks up and Svitolina double faults, third break point.

Svitolina backhand into the net and Sabalenka breaks back.

01:04 PM

Svitolina* 4-6, 2-0 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Shot of the match from Svitolina so far as she hangs into the rally and drills a backhand down the line for a winner, 15-30.

Sabalenka responds with a drive forehand winner, 30-30. But a double fault gives Svitolina her first break point of the match.

Sabalenka forehand into the net and Svitolina breaks for the first time. 

12:59 PM

Second Set: Svitolina 4-6, 1-0 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

Must win set for Svitolina and she makes a decent start, racing to 40-15.

But she is having to do a lot of running at the moment to keep up with Sabalenka, who is striking the ball so cleanly.

A 13th winner makes it deuce. Sabalenka is the definition of a high risk, high reward player.

A 14th winner, again on the forehand side gives her a break point. Sabalenka attacks the net and Svitolina comes up with a huge backhand pass.

Huge roar from the crowd as Svitolina holds after that big scare.

12:52 PM

Twitter reacts

12:49 PM

Svitolina* 4-6 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

An ace by Sabalenka to start the match. Another big first serve is unreturned by Svitolina, 30-0.

Sabalenka gets a mid-court ball but strikes her forehand long, 30-15. Sabalenka forehand winner, two set points.

Svitolina backhand return loops into the tramlines and Sabalenka takes the opening set.

Elena Svitolina vs Aryna Sabalenka live: French Open latest updates - Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Elena Svitolina vs Aryna Sabalenka live: French Open latest updates - Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne

12:46 PM

Svitolina 4-5 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

Into the business end of the set now, where one break could decide it.

Svitolina forehand long, 15-30. Then another, 30-40. Huge point coming up. The rally try to encourage the Ukrainian.

70mph second serve from Svitolina and Sabalenka punishes her by stepping inside and ripping a backhand down the line for a winner.

Sabalenka breaks.

12:42 PM

Svitolina* 4-4 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Another routine hold for Sabalenka. Svitolina will need to do a lot more if she wants to break her opponent.

12:38 PM

Svitolina 4-3 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

Sabalenka forehand down the line goes long, 30-15. A chance missed for her there. Defensive Svitolina backhand long, 30-30.

More important point coming up. Sabalenka dumps a backhand into the net, 40-30. A poor shot that one.

Sabalenka forehand return dinner, deuce. That was huge. But Svitolina is unfazed and holds when she finds her own big shot on the first serve, which is unreturned.

12:33 PM

Svitolina* 3-3 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Sabalenka overhead smash winner, 30-0. With the greater power, Sabalenka is blasting through points and not making enough errors to give Svitolina hope.

Nice to see before the match:

12:29 PM

Svitolina 3-2 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

Svitolina is having to do a lot of side-to-side running to live with Sabalenka’s groundstrokes. It is probably unsustainable to do this for two hours.

But aces will certainly help and she hits her first of the match to make it 40-15.

Another big wide serve and Sabalenka fails to get her return back in play.

12:26 PM

Svitolina* 2-2 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Better from Sabalenka as she attacks the net on her terms after a big forehand approach shot and finishes with a backhand volley winner, 40-15.

Sabalenka forehand into the net, 40-30. Great return by Svitolina to the feet of Sabalenka, who nets another forehand, deuce.

Great volley on the stretch by Sabalenka and Svitolina can only flick her backhand reply wide.

Sabalenka holds. An entertaining start to the match.

12:20 PM

Svitolina 2-1 Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

A sxith unforced error by Sabalenka allows Svitolina to move to 40-0. A backhand return into the net and Svitolina holds again.

A confident start by the Ukrainian.

12:18 PM

Svitolina* 1-1 Sabalenka (*denotes next server)

Sabalenka hits a very flat ball on serve and in rallies. Svitolina brings Sabalenka to the net and once again the Belarusian looks uncomfortable when forced to hit volleys.

But Sabalenka steps inside the baseline and drills a backhand down the line for a winner to hold serve.

12:14 PM

First Set: Elena Svitolina 1-0 Aryna Sabalenka* (*denotes next server)

One of the keys to this match will be how Svitolina copes with the power and aggression from Sabalenka.

We get our first glimpse of Sabalenka’s power when she drills a backhand down the line for a winner, 15-15.

Sabalenka is already up on the baseline while Svitolina is a metre or two back. Svitolina drags Sabalenka into the net with a drop shot then strikes a backhand at the Belarusian, who volley into the tramlines.

Svitolina holds to start the match.

12:06 PM

Here we go!

The two players walk onto the court and receive warm receptions from the sparse crowd.

Low number of fans on Chatrier at the moment.

12:02 PM

Sabalenka on facing Svitolina

She’s playing really great tennis here in Paris, moving well. Like another player’s gonna run a lot and put a lot of balls back, and I just have to be patient and wait for that perfect shot to finish the point.

Don’t rush myself. Just go there and fight and show my best tennis.

Elena Svitolina vs Aryna Sabalenka live: French Open latest updates - Getty Images/Ian MacNicol
Elena Svitolina vs Aryna Sabalenka live: French Open latest updates - Getty Images/Ian MacNicol

11:54 AM

The first semi-finalist

In the day’s first match, Karolina Muchova has beaten 2021 runner up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-5, 6-2 to reach the last four of a grand slam for the first time since the 2021 Australian Open.

11:48 AM

A bit of drama before the match has even begun...

11:36 AM

Svitolina vs Sabalenka

Hello and welcome to coverage from the French Open of Elina Svitolina vs Aryna Sabalenka.

Tensions will be high on Court Philippe Chatrier when these two women take each other on due to the political aspect of the match-up.

Svitolina, playing in her first grand slam since becoming a mother, is from Ukraine while Sabalenka hails from Belarus.
Belarus have aided Russia in its invasion of Ukraine and Svitolina has chosen not to shake hands with opponents from those countries.

In the last round, Russian Daria Kasatkina was booed after her defeat to Svitolina. After being repeatedly quizzed about her personal stance on the war earlier in the tournament, Sabalenka has skipped her last two press conferences.

A place in the semi-finals is at stake for both players and Svitolina believes she has what it takes to win in Paris.

“Of course I would love to win here,” Svitolina said. “It will be the dream, but it’s always been in my career like step by step.

“I think this is the only right way to do, to not look too much into the future, because otherwise you lose your focus from the small things that brings you to win the matches.”

With no French players left in the tournament, Svitolina has become earned the support of the crowd through her performances and relationship with Gael Monfils and the 28-year-old says she is appreciative of the backing she’s received.

“From the first round, you know, people were cheering me on and getting more and more, and really, really special, the things that I didn’t expect that,” she said.

“I already knew from Strasbourg that a lot of people supported me. We have been married for a couple of years now. I have been with Gael for over five years now. I didn’t expect that it would come like this year.

“Yeah, but in the end, just thankful for the crowd to be there for me, even though it was some matches I was one set down and coming back to win, they are cheering me on and giving me this push and this hope that I can come back and can win.”