Aryna Sabalenka’s day started with routine dismantling of Russia’s Kamilla Rakhimova which propelled the world number two, originally from Belarus, into week two of the French Open as expected.
But then Sabalenka put herself, the tournament and tennis once again at the center of the sporting debate and war in Ukraine by refusing to attend the mandatory post-match press conference. He said he felt insecure during a news conference earlier this week when a journalist from Ukraine asked Sabalenka about his support for President Alexandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, who has supported Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“On Wednesday I didn’t feel safe in the press conference,” Sabalenka was quoted as saying at the start of the transcript of her statement following the 6-2, 6-2 win over Rakhimova. “I need to be able to feel safe when I do interviews with reporters after my matches. For the sake of my own mental health and well-being, I have decided to get out of this situation today, and the tournament has supported me in this decision.”
Cédric Laurent, spokesman for the French tennis federation, FFT, which organizes the Grand Slam tournament, which has been dominated by geopolitics from the start, said federation officials learned after Sabalenka’s match that she would not be participating in the press conference.
French Open officials agreed with Sabalenka’s decision for Friday’s match but said no decision had been made on her press conference for the rest of the tournament.
Laurent said a “pool” had been selected to interview Sabalenka, but he declined to say who was in the pool or whether they were members of independent news media or working for the women’s tennis, WTA, tournament or tour.
A person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to speak on the matter said that only one person – a WTA employee – asked the question in the pool interview.
A person familiar with the WTA’s actions who was also not authorized to speak on the matter said the organization supported Sabalenka’s wish not to participate in the press conference and the way her statement was presented.
Representatives for Sabalenka at IMG, the sports and entertainment company of which Endeavor is a unit, did not respond to requests for comment.
The decision on Sabalenka comes two years after a confrontation with Naomi Osaka over her presence at a press conference knocked her out of the French Open. Osaka announced on social media before the start of the tournament that she would not be participating in the press conference to protect her mental health and would pay whatever fine she received.
After Osaka missed a press conference following her opening-round victory, she was fined $15,000 by tournament referees, and the leaders of the four Grand Slam competitions — the Australian, French, and US Opens, as well as Wimbledon — were threatened with expulsion from the French Open and facing harsher penalties if he did not fulfill his media obligations.
Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion and one of the world’s top-ranked players at the time, stepped down the next day, announcing for the first time that she was battling depression and planning to take a break from tennis. She returned seven weeks later, but withdrew once more in the fall of 2021. She battled injuries for most of 2022, and is now pregnant with her first child, although she has said she intends to return after delivery.
In Sabalenka’s case, the decision came after two heated debates with Daria Meshcheriakova, a freelance journalist from Ukraine who works for Tribuna, a sports publication based in the country.
During the first exchange, Meshcheriakova asked Sabalenka what her message was to the world about the war and why she claimed Ukrainian players “hated” it. Sabalenka denied having said that and later spoke publicly about the war.
“No one in the world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, supports war. Nothing,” said Sabalenka, who lives in Miami. “How can we support war? No one, normal people would never support him.”
Three days later, after Sabalenka’s second-round match, Meshcheriakova challenged her about a letter she was supposed to sign in 2020 in support of Lukashenko, “at the time he tortured and beat protesters in the street,” and about participating in New Year’s celebrations with him.
The letter Sabalenka was supposed to sign has not been made public, and her New Year’s celebrations with the Belarusian president have not been independently verified, despite numerous photos of Sabalenka and Lukashenko together. In an interview Friday, Meshcheriakova, who left Kyiv for the Netherlands 10 days after the war started when a missile landed near her apartment and her parents were still living in Russian-occupied Luhansk, said she had learned of the letter and New Year’s celebrations from a prominent Belarusian journalist who was forced to leave the country.
“That’s right,” said Meshcheriakova, “and you saw how she responded.”
Sabalenka said she had no comment on either question, then proceeded to answer Meshcheriakova’s next question: “So you’re basically standing for everything because you can’t talk? You are not a small person, Aryna.”
But Sabalenka quickly cut herself off when a moderator stated that Sabalenka had made it clear she would not be commenting any further.
“Everything is clear to us,” Meshcheriakova said ending the exchange.
Elina Svitolina, who is sort of the unofficial leader of the Ukrainian tour members, said they only wanted to hear from the players representing Russia and Belarus that they believed their countries should end the war.
“I think almost all Ukrainians will be happy to hear it from their side,” said Svitolina after her three-set win over Russia’s Anna Blinkova.
Like other Ukrainian players, Svitolina did not shake Blinkova’s hand after the match.
“Can you imagine the men or women who are currently on the front lines, you know, looking at me and I, like, acting like nothing happened,” Svitolina said. “I represent my country. I have a voice.”
Sabalenka is scheduled to face Sloane Stephens of the United States on Sunday in the fourth round. It is not yet clear whether he will face reporters after the match.
Meshcheriakova, who works as a political analyst in addition to covering sports, said she would return to her day job after Saturday. He said he had used the vacation time to report for the tournament and pay his own way.
In Osaka’s case, tournament officials said that not requiring Osaka to attend a press conference could give her an unfair advantage over other players.
Stephens, who is a member of the WTA Players’ Council, said Friday she supported Sabalenka’s decision not to attend her press conference, and that every player has the right to feel safe carrying out his media obligations.
“Everyone needs to feel good about who they are and what they do,” says Stephens. “If he doesn’t feel safe, then he doesn’t need to be there. That’s the end.”
Meshcheriakova said she had spoken to her parents earlier in the day. Her mother, she said, had watched Russian media coverage of the story, in which she was described as using the Russian words for Black cross-dresser. He begged his daughter to stop covering the tournament and leave immediately.
“Of course I told him I would not do it,” said Meshcheriakova. “I am a journalist.”