Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka contested a politically charged French Open quarter-final with Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina on Sunday and immediately set the tone for the high-profile showdown by boycotting the Roland Garros media for the second time.
Australian Open champion and world number two Sabalenka beat Sloane Stephens 7-6 (7/5), 6-4 to reach the last eight in Paris for the first time.
Tuesday’s clash will be the third meeting between Sabalenka and Svitolina, but the first since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. Belarus is a key military ally of Moscow.
Svitolina has faced two Russians so far in the tournament and refused to shake hands with them in protest against the war.
Sabalenka beat Svitolina’s fellow Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk in the first round last weekend.
Kostyuk’s decision not to shake hands also earned him a chorus of boos from the Parisian crowd. Kostyuk said viewers who made fun of her should be “embarrassed”.
After beating Stephens on Sunday, it was announced that for the second game in a row, Sabalenka would not appear at a post-match press conference.
She boycotted her final press conference scheduled for Friday after beating Kamilla Rakhimova in the third round.
She claimed she “didn’t feel safe” when previously asked about the war and her relationship with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“Aryna Sabalenka will not hold a general press conference tonight,” organizers said in a statement.
“An interview with a WTA editorial reporter will be conducted shortly and transcribed and distributed.”
Unsurprisingly, the awkward issue of a clash between Belarus and Ukraine was avoided in a bland official document provided by the organizers.
Sabalenka limited his comments to his expectations for Tuesday’s match, pledging to show “my best tennis”.
After her first two rounds, Sabalenka had fended off a series of tough questions about her individual stance on the war as well as her ties to the Belarusian government.
– ‘No comments’ –
On Wednesday, she was asked why in 2020 she “signed a letter to support Lukashenko” when “he was torturing and beating protesters” in the street.
“I have no comments for you, so thank you for your question,” she replied.
Earlier, Svitolina, playing her first Grand Slam since becoming a mother, reached the quarter-finals for the fourth time.
The Ukrainian beat Daria Kasatkina 6-4, 7-6 (7/5) for her seventh win in seven games against the Russian who was a semi-finalist last year.
Although she didn’t shake hands, Kasatkina still gave her rival a friendly thumbs up.
Svitolina had called Kasatkina “brave” for backing the British tennis authorities’ decision to provide all Ukrainian players with two hotel rooms throughout the upcoming Wimbledon culminating grass season.
“Certainly, I recognized the game today. Really grateful for her position that she took,” Svitolina said on Sunday.
“Yeah, he’s a really brave person to say that publicly, not many players have done that.”
Svitolina said she would not shake hands with Sabalenka when they met on Tuesday.
“I played the last two matches against Russian players so it won’t change, everything will be the same,” she said.
“So I’m used to it now, it’s going to be the same.”
Unlike Sabalenka, Svitolina, 28, insisted the post-match press conferences provided her and other Ukrainian players with a vital public platform.
“Having a press conference is a good thing. Players share moments they have on the pitch, off the pitch,” she said.
Svitolina’s run to the quarter-finals captured the imagination at home.
“It’s a story of self-confidence…it’s a story of bravery…a story of courage…Much deserved @ElinaSvitolina, thank you for giving Ukraine a reason to celebrate” , tweeted former ATP Tour player Sergiy Stakhovsky.