Come to think of it, this French Open might have been destined to have a moment like the one that took place on Tuesday.
During 10 days in Paris, and for months on the women’s professional tennis tour, Ukrainian players have made it clear they will not shake hands with players from Russia or Belarus after their matches. Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, the second seed and one of the favorites for the women’s singles title, knows this as well as anyone. She beat Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk last week in the first round and then watched as Kostyuk gathered hers and left the field swiftly under a chorus of boos.
Despite the animosity from the crowd, there is no chance that Elina Svitolina, the unofficial leader of women’s players from Ukraine, will behave differently when it’s her turn to face Sabalenka on Tuesday. Sabalenka beat Svitolina, 6-4, 6-4, with one last bullying rally and one final forehand.
And so, says Svitolina, when she saw Sabalenka at the net, waiting – and waiting, and waiting – and looking at her when the match was over, one thought crossed her mind: “What are you doing?”
Did Svitolina think Sabalenka seized the moment, knowing that the crowd at Roland Garros had previously howled at players who ignored the post-match handshake?
“Yes, I think so, unfortunately,” said Svitolina during the post-match press conference.
Sabalenka later denied that she had done anything of the sort.
“It’s just instinct,” he said, because that’s what he always does at the end of games.
That Sabalenka said something is news in itself. After her third-round win on Friday, Sabalenka skipped the mandatory post-match press conference, opting to conduct interviews only with WTA employees. He did the same after his fourth round victory.
Tennis is often overshadowed by geopolitics at this French Open. Novak Djokovic, a 22-time Grand Slam champion and Serbia’s biggest celebrity, expressed solidarity with ethnic Serb protesters who clashed with NATO troops in Kosovo late last month for control of the territory and state status, which belongs to more than 100 nations. recognized but Serbia and Russia have not. Djokovic even wrote on a plastic plate in front of television cameras that Kosovo is the heart of Serbia, a statement that Kosovo supporters call fascist and espouse a philosophy that leads to ethnic cleansing.
For Sabalenka, talk of politics became inevitable after she pulled up-and-coming Ukrainian Kostyuk in the first half, and a journalist from Ukraine asked about her earlier statement that she would end the war if she could. The journalist also brought up Sabalenka’s close past ties with Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who allowed Russia to use his country as a staging ground for its war in Ukraine. The internet has no shortage of photos and videos of Sabalenka with Lukashenko after he arrested political opponents and used the military and police to quell protests.
After the press conference, Sabalenka announced that she no longer felt “safe” facing the news media and chose to speak only with a WTA employee after her next two matches. The WTA and tournament organizers stood by her decision, despite the fines and threats of more serious punishment they imposed on Naomi Osaka for doing the same thing at the French Open two years ago.
“I feel completely unappreciated,” Sabalenka said on Tuesday of those tense first two press conferences.
While Sabalenka struggled off the court, Svitolina became the story of the tournament. She has spent much of the past year on maternity leave and raising money for relief efforts in Ukraine, and she thrilled crowds as she battled her way through her first four matches at her first Grand Slam after the birth of her daughter. Local fans have a special affinity for Svitolina, who is married to Frenchman Gaël Monfils, who has been courtside in all of her matches.
Her victory set up a battle with Sabalenka, which immediately felt like something more than a match between two tennis players.
It was Ukraine against Belarus, a much-loved player in the sport against a 25 year old who fans still know. One has become a prominent figure in popular culture in the war relief effort; others do not make it clear where his loyalties lie.
Under pressure from Ukrainian journalists, Sabalenka said she did not support the war – “No normal person would support this war,” she said – but did not give up her support for Lukashenko.
Tennis-wise, it was a duel between grinding retriever Svitolina and perhaps the women’s game’s greatest hitter, Sabalenka, and it quickly became clear that unless Sabalenka’s erratic old self emerged, this would not be Svitolina’s day. Sabalenka is holding steady, and Svitolina is out. Sabalenka will face Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic in Thursday’s semifinals.
Then came the awkward stalemate at the end, and even some boos for Svitolina’s actions as she packed her bags, with Sabalenka waiting at the net, and as she left the court.
“He didn’t deserve all this,” Sabalenka said of the howling.
Svitolina said everyone might be better off if the WTA and tournament organizers explained to players from Russia and Belarus that as long as there is war, there will be no handshakes. He also said one player should not take advantage of the potential stress of facing the news media while another should sit at the microphone and respond to any questions that arise.
“I faced difficulties,” said Svitolina. “I didn’t run away. I have a strong position, and I’m vocal about it.” He said he would not try to curry favor with the public “by betraying my firm convictions and strongest position for my country.”
When it was Sabalenka’s turn, she once again declared her opposition to war, and when pressured – by a journalist from Poland – she attempted to increase the distance between her and Lukashenko. The Ukrainian journalist who questioned him earlier did not cover the second week of the tournament.
“I don’t support the war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko now,” Sabalenka said.
He spoke about his sleep deprivation because of his decision to skip the previous press conference and said that he felt bad about it and that he plans not to miss it again but does not regret the decision.
“I don’t want to get involved in any kind of politics,” he said. “I just want to be a tennis player.”
For now, and with a possible final date coming with Poland’s Iga Swiatek, who wears a Ukrainian flag pin when he plays, that’s unlikely.