WATCH: Sabalenka reached two finals during the clay-court swing, winning her second Mutua Madrid Open title three weeks ago.

PARIS—As the 2023 Roland Garros women’s draw came together, gasps arose from the attending members of the media when it was revealed that No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka would face Marta Kostyuk in the first round.

A clash between Sabalenka and Kostyuk would be one to watch even under normal circumstances, but these aren’t normal circumstances: Ukraine has been under siege as a result of the combined military efforts of Russia and Belarus since February 2022, creating a divide between those for and against banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competition.

For her part, Kostyuk has long made her position clear; as the de facto spokeswoman for the Ukrainian tennis contingent, she lauded Wimbledon’s decision to prevent Russians and Belarusians from taking part in the Championships last summer and led the charge in discouraging her countrywomen from shaking hands with players from those countries should they play a match.

“We are at war at the moment,” Kostyuk reminded press when she refused to shake hands with former friend Anastasia Potapova at the Miami Open.

Kostyuk has also been critical of Russian and Belarusians who have not voiced meaningful opposition to their governments’ actions. Speaking at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, Sabalenka, who has also spoken of abuses from Ukrainian player teams at tournaments, made her most emphatic statement against the continuing war:

“If I could stop the war I would do it, but unfortunately that doesn’t lie in my hands.”


The 2023 Australian Open champion repeated that sentiment in her Roland Garros Media Day press conference, and was sympathetic to the Ukrainian players’ collective decision not to shake hands with Russians and Belarusians at net.

“I kind of can understand them,” she said on Friday, “like I imagine they're going to shake hands with Russians and Belarusians, and then they're gonna get so many messages from their home country. So I kind of understand why they are not doing it. At the same time, I feel like sports shouldn't be in politics. Like we're just athletes. If they feel good with no shaking hands, I'm happy with that.

“I don't want to waste my energy on this kind of stuff, you know,” she continued. “This is like, it's not about—it's none of my business, you know. So, if she hates me, okay. I can't do anything about that. There is going to be people who loves me; there is going to be people who hates me. If she hates me, I don't feel anything like that towards her.”

Setting that aside, Sabalenka is set to play her first Grand Slam tournament as a reigning major champion, a fact that the world No. 2 —who could ascend to No. 1 for the first time after this tournament—hoped in vain would alleviate that pre-Slam winning pressure.

“After I won Australia, I thought it's going to be easier, but it's not easier,” she smiled. “It’s the same. I still have to bring my best tennis, and the thing that I have one Grand Slam in my pocket, it's not going to help me to win this one. Everyone will come and try to beat me.”

Chief among them will be Kostyuk, who Sabalenka beat at the 2022 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in their only previous meeting—ironically a week before the Russian and Belarusian invasion in Ukraine. The warm handshake they exchanged following that match is unlikely to repeat in Paris.