French Open: Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka set for highly-charged quarter-final showdown

Elina Svitolina faces Aryna Sabalenka in the French Open quarter-finals on Tuesday  (Reuters/Getty Images)
Elina Svitolina faces Aryna Sabalenka in the French Open quarter-finals on Tuesday (Reuters/Getty Images)

The backdrop of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine has loomed large at the French Open.

Aryna Sabalenka has refused to partake in any press conferences since being questioned on her position regarding the war and her country Belarus’ support for it.

Ukrainian players, meanwhile, have refused to shake hands with their Russian opponents at the end of their matches. But there was a thumbs-up between Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina and Daria Kasatkina, who has been publicly outspoken against the war, following their match at Roland Garros on Sunday.

On Tuesday morning, the subject will be front and centre once more as No2 seed Sabalenka takes on Svitolina on Philippe-Chatrier.

While the French crowd have, for the most part, booed when Ukrainian players have opted against a post-match handshake, they see Svitolina, who is married to French player Gael Monfils, as one of their own.

Throughout, she has spoken eloquently both about the ongoing invasion and also the challenges of playing a first Grand Slam since the birth of the couple’s daughter Skaï.

In terms of whether the prospect of Sabalenka might be any different, Svitolina said: “I have played the last two matches against Russian players so it will not change, everything will be the same. So I’m used to it now, it’s going to be the same.”

That also goes for the post-match handshake, or absence thereof, which she explained stemmed from Ukrainian officials.

“It started with the Ukrainian government that went to the meetings with the Russian government,” she said. “They were against shaking hands because they’re not sharing the same values and what the Russians are doing to our country.

“So, that’s why it follows. We are Ukrainians, we all unite for one goal of winning this war. I’m Ukrainian, I’m standing for my country. I’m doing everything possible to support, to give good spirit for the men, for the women who are right now in the front line who are fighting for our land, for our country.

“So can you imagine the guy or girl who is right now on the front line, looking at me and I’m acting like nothing is happening. I’m representing my country, I have a voice, I’m standing with Ukraine. What the Russian government or Russian soldiers are doing on our land is really, really terrible.”

For her part, Sabalenka has been given special dispensation to be questioned by a member of WTA staff for the protection of her mental health rather than attend a full press conference. Players who refuse press are usually fined a five-figure sum.

Her press conference no-shows are the result of one last week in which a Ukrainian journalist questioned about her support for Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko and asked Sabalenka to flatly condemn Belarus’ support for the war. Sabalenka said “I’ve got not comments to you” to both questions.

It remains to be seen how the Australian Open champion is received on court on Tuesday morning against Svitolina, who considers herself a proud Ukrainian as well as the “last French player standing” in the singles, as she put it.