Aryna Sabalenka has said that she does not support the Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, as she returned to conduct her mandatory press duties following her French Open quarter-final win against Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina.
Sabalenka, the second seed, defeated Svitolina 6-4, 6-4 to reach the French Open semi-finals for the first time. Sabalenka had skipped her previous two press conferences following tense exchanges with a Ukrainian journalist, who aggressively questioned her stance on the war and her links with Lukashenko.
Upon her return, Sabalenka addressed a significantly bigger audience than any other player during the tournament and she fielded more political questions than ever before. Sabalenka was directly asked if she supported Lukashenko, prompting her to distance herself from the dictator for the first time.
Sabalenka attended Lukashenko’s new year address in 2021, shortly after his violent repression of mass protests in Belarus. “It’s a tough question. I mean, I don’t support war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko right now,” she said.
Sabalenka said she had stepped away from her media duties after feeling disrespected and has had difficulty sleeping since. “I don’t regret the decisions,” the 25-year-old said. “I felt really disrespected, and I felt really bad. I mean, grand slam, it’s enough pressure to handle, and I just tried to focus on myself, on my game.”
Additionally, she repeated that she is against Russia’s war in Ukraine and stated her reasons for arguing that sport is separate from politics. “The thing that I don’t want sport to be involved in politics, because I’m just a 25-years-old tennis player. And if I would like to be political I wouldn’t be here. I don’t want to be involved in any politics,” she said.
Sabalenka is now just the fifth active female player to have reached the semi-final of every grand slam tournament and the only player, man or woman, under 30 to do so. She continues to put pressure on Iga Swiatek in the race for the No 1 ranking, who must outdo Sabalenka’s result here to maintain her top ranking.
Svitolina, a former No 3, represented something that has been missing from the top 10 since Sabalenka established herself as one of the top two players in the world: an elite, in-form defensive player. Svitolina has built a career out of provoking errors from opponents with her defence and well-rounded game, keeping the bigger shotmakers honest and exploiting any weaknesses.
From the beginning, Svitolina was determined to contain the power of Sabalenka and she started well. She served extremely well early on, not facing a break point throughout her first four service games. She finished the set with just six unforced errors, eliciting 17 from Sabalenka.
In the end, though, Sabalenka simply had too much game. She slammed a backhand return winner to take the decisive break of the first set at 4-4. Then, when Svitolina tried to hold her off in an exhausting deuce game at 2-2 in the second set on Svitolina’s serve, Sabalenka relentlessly toiled through four break points until she secured the break. The Belarusian continued to show how her game has evolved this year, blending her immense power with patience and care as she continually pinned Svitolina behind the baseline before unleashing.
Throughout the tournament, Svitolina has made it clear that she would not shake hands with Russian and Belarusian opponents. After match point, however, Sabalenka chose to lean on the net and remain there, staring straight at Svitolina until the Ukrainian walked up from the baseline and passed her. Svitolina did not acknowledge her. “I don’t know. It just was an instinct like I always do after all my matches,” said Sabalenka on her decision to wait at the net.
It was a completely different interaction compared to Svitolina’s wins over the Russians Anna Blinkova and Daria Kasatkina. Despite not shaking hands, Svitolina exchanged thumbs-up gestures with both opponents and the mutual respect was clear. Two days after the French crowd booed Kasatkina off the court during her defeat to Svitolina, a large section of the crowd also booed Svitolina. “It was quite expected,” said Svitolina. “I was expecting that. Whoever in this situation loses, I guess, gets booed, so I was expecting that. It was not a surprise for me.”
Svitolina was less certain about Sabalenka’s decision to hang around at the net: “My initial reaction, don’t know, was like, ‘What are you doing?’” said Svitolina, smiling. “Because [in] all my press conferences I said my clear position,” she said. Asked if she thought Sabalenka’s decision to stand at the net inflamed the situation, Svitolina said: “Yeah, I think so, unfortunately.”
After returning from maternity leave at the beginning of the clay-court season, unsure of what would follow, a loss to the best player in the world this year does not dampen the triumph of Svitolina’s return. She has already returned to the top 75 with a title in Strasbourg and a major quarter-final.
Sabalenka will face the resurgent Karolina Muchova in the semi-final after she outclassed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-5, 6-2. Muchova, a Czech former Australian Open semi-finalist ranked No 43, has struggled badly with various injuries throughout her career despite her immense talent and smooth all-court game. The pair will both play for their first French Open final. – Guardian