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Aryna Sabalenka returns to Roland Garros press conference, reaffirms anti-war stance
The No. 2 seed had opted out of her last two media obligations after not feeling safe in her second-round presser in Paris, and expressed opposition to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko "right now."
Published Jun 06, 2023
WATCH: Sabalenka spoke to Tennis Channel after reaching her first Roland Garros semifinal.
PARIS—Aryna Sabalenka’s last official press conference was on May 31, in a small room at Roland Garros’ media center. The No. 2 seed returned to a much bigger dais six days later after opting out of media obligations in her previous two rounds, expressing that she “did not feel safe” following an explosive exchange with a Ukrainian journalist.
“I really felt bad not coming here,” she said after defeating Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, 6-4, 6-4 on Tuesday. “I couldn't sleep. Like all those bad feelings was in my head, I couldn't fall asleep. I felt really bad not coming here. I really respect all of you guys. Thank you so much for coming here, for being interested in me.
“I just felt so bad not coming here.”
While Sabalenka remains undefeated in Grand Slam matches this season, the Belarusian has found herself at the center of a controversy that began on the first day of 2023 Roland Garros when she drew Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk who, like her compatriots, have refused to shake hands with Russian and Belarusian players while the invasion into Ukraine continues.
Sabalenka was repeatedly asked to clarify her stance regarding the war before tensions boiled over after her second-round victory over Iryna Shymanovich, where a journalist accused her of supporting Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko and encouraging her to “flatly condemn the fact that Belarus is attacking Ukraine with missiles.”
While Sabalenka gave no comment to the question at the time, she was more open about the issue after reaching her first Roland Garros semifinal. She also spoke to her relationship with Lukashenko, who has taken multiple pictures with the world No. 2, both at team competitions and an official New Year’s celebration.
I don't want my country to be involved in any conflict. I said it many times, and you know where I stand, you know. You have my position. You have my answer. I answered it many times. I'm not supporting the war. Aryna Sabalenka
“We played a lot of [Billie Jean King] Cups in Belarus,” she said, attempting to explain the pictures circulating on social media. “He was in our matches taking pictures with us after the match. Nothing bad was happening that time in Belarus or in Ukraine or in Russia.
“And I said it many times already, I'm not supporting war,” she added, saying that she did not support Lukashenko “right now.”
“I don't want my country to be involved in any conflict. I said it many times, and you know where I stand, you know. You have my position. You have my answer. I answered it many times. I'm not supporting the war. And the thing that I don't want sport to be involved in politics, because I'm just a tennis player, 25-years-old tennis player. And if I would like to be political I wouldn't be here. I don't want to be involved in any politics. I just want to be a tennis player.”
Sabalenka’s ability to skip official media obligations and participate in closed question-and-answer sessions are a stark contrast to the treatment Roland Garros gave to Naomi Osaka when the former No. 1 announced she would not take part in any post-match press conferences in 2021.
The tournament and the tours at large have sought to make amends for the debacle that resulted in Osaka withdrawing from the major following her first-round win, allowing players to sit out heretofore press conferences to preserve their mental health.
You know that I really respect all of you, and I'm always open. You can ask whatever you want. You will get all the information, but in the last press conference, I felt like my press conference became a political TV show, and I'm not expert in politics. I'm just a tennis player. Aryna Sabalenka
Sabalenka made use of those new alternatives after defeating Kamila Rakhimova and Sloane Stephens in the third and fourth rounds, finally returning to press after defeating Svitolina in straight sets.
“I don't regret the decisions,” she said in front of a room full of journalists and snapping cameras. “I felt really disrespected, and I felt really bad. I mean, Grand Slam, it's enough pressure to handle, and I just tried to focus on myself, on my game.
“I really hope that you guys will understand me, my feelings. You know that I really respect all of you, and I'm always open. You can ask whatever you want. You will get all the information, but in the last press conference, I felt like my press conference became a political TV show, and I'm not expert in politics. I'm just a tennis player.”
Speaking on the booing Svitolina received for not shaking Sabalenka’s hand and the accusation that she had instigated those boos by waiting at the net for Svitolina, Sabalenka chalked the pause to “instinct” and expressed regret that Svitolina had been treated that way by the Court Philippe-Chatrier crowd.
“I think she didn't deserve all these boos,” she said. “I'm giving such a big respect to her what she's doing after giving birth. It's impressive and I'm really impressed by what she's doing. I give big respect to her.”
Sabalenka will next face Karolina Muchova for a spot in her first Roland Garros final, and gave no indication that she would skip any further press conferences while she remains in the tournament.
“I just need to step back and just bring focus on my tennis and on my game. Yeah, and I feel good that I did it and I feel sorry for you guys that you didn't have chance to chat with me. But I'm here today, and I am ready to give answers for every question you have.”