Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka skips presser, cites mental health

Tom Hamilton, Senior WriterJun 2, 2023, 12:12 PM ET Close • Joined ESPN in 2011• Covered two…

Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka skips presser, cites mental health

PARIS — Aryna Sabalenka skipped an open news conference after her third-round win at the French Open on Friday, saying she made the decision for her own “mental health and well-being.”

Sabalenka instead spoke to a small pool of journalists after her 6-2, 6-2 victory over Kamilla Rakhimova. Sabalenka said she did not feel safe during a news conference Wednesday, when the Belarusian player faced questions about her country’s involvement in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“After my match [on Wednesday], I spoke with the media like I normally do. I know they still expect some questions that are more about the politics and not so much about my tennis,” Sabalenka said. “For many months now, I have answered these questions at tournaments and been very clear in my feelings and my thoughts. 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.”

On Wednesday, Sabalenka was asked whether she supported Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and if she would denounce the war in Ukraine. On both occasions, she answered, “I’ve got no comments to you”.

“I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches,” Sabalenka said Friday. “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.”

Sabalenka previously addressed the reaction she has received from other players at tournaments this season due to the war, saying in March that she faced “hate” in the locker room “for no reason.”

She opened the French Open with a win over Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk. After the match, Kostyuk refused to shake hands with Sabalenka, drawing boos from the crowd at Roland Garros.

Addressing the incident at her Sunday news conference, Sabalenka said: “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.”

When a portion of those comments was read to Kostyuk by a reporter, she responded that she doesn’t get why Sabalenka does not come out and say that “she personally doesn’t support this war.”

Also on Friday, Ukrainian Elina Svitolina said she will not shake the hands of Russian and Belarusian opponents out of respect for the soldiers fighting on the front line.

Svitolina, who reached the French Open fourth round with a win over Anna Blinkova of Russia, refused to shake hands with her opponent and was booed by some fans.

“I am Ukrainian. I am standing for my country, doing anything possible to support men and women who are right now in the front line fighting for our land, our country,” Svitolina said. “Can you imagine the guy or girl in the front line looking at me and I am acting like nothing is happening?”

The 28-year-old player has repeatedly called for Russian and Belarusian tennis players to be banned from international competition over the invasion of her country.

Svitolina’s handshake refusal will most likely be repeated in a few days when she faces ninth-seeded Russian Daria Kasatkina in the fourth round. Kasatkina, who has left Russia, has been critical of the war, calling it a “nightmare” — a position Svitolina referred to as “really brave.”

The decision to skip Friday’s news conference was made between Sabalenka and Roland Garros organizers, and a French Tennis Federation spokesperson told Reuters that Sabalenka would not be fined.

“It was to protect her,” the spokesperson said, adding that whether Sabalenka attends other news conferences would be her decision.