Alina Sabalenka’s day started with the customary destruction of Russia’s Kamila Rakimova, who predictably pushed the world number two from Belarus into week two of the French Open.
But Sabalenka has since refused to attend the mandatory post-match press conference, putting herself, the competition and tennis back at the center of the debate over sport and war in Ukraine. At her last press conference this week, Sabalenka said she felt threatened when Ukrainian journalists asked her about her support for Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has backed Russia’s war against Ukraine. Stated.
“I didn’t feel safe at Wednesday’s press conference,” Sabalenka reportedly said at the beginning of her speech record after the 6-2, 6-2 victory over Rahimova. “It should give me peace of mind when I go to interviews with reporters after the game. They gave me.”
Cédric Laurent, spokesman for the French tennis federation FFT, which hosts the grand slam tournament, which has been dominated by geopolitics from the beginning, said federation officials learned Sabalenka would not attend a press conference after the match. Stated.
Officials at the French Open confirmed Sabalenka’s decision for Friday’s match, but said no decision had yet been made on a press conference for the rest of the tournament.
Laurent said a “pool” had been selected to interview Sabalenka, but it was not clear who was in that pool, whether it was a member of the independent media or WTA officials at the tournament or on the women’s tennis tour. I didn’t.
He was not authorized to comment on the matter, but only one WTA official asked questions during the pool interview, according to people familiar with the matter.
A source familiar with the WTA’s work, who is also not authorized to speak on the issue, said the group supports Sabalenka’s desire not to attend the press conference and the way she delivered her remarks. rice field.
Sabalenka’s representative for sports entertainment company IMG, a division of Endeavor, did not respond to a request for comment.
Sabalenka’s decision comes two years after a dispute with Naomi Osaka over press conference appearances led to her withdrawing from the French Open. Osaka announced on social media before the start of the tournament that she would not attend the press conference to protect her mental health and that she would pay any fines she received.
After Osaka was fined $15,000 by tournament referees after she missed a press conference after winning her season opener, the leaders of the Australian Open, French Open, US Open and Wimbledon have ruled her out. threatened with possible expulsion from the tournament. If she doesn’t meet her media obligations at the French Open, she’ll face tougher penalties.
Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion and one of the world’s top ranked players at the time, pulled out the next day, announcing for the first time that she was battling depression and was taking a break from tennis. She returned after seven weeks, but she will be out again in the fall of 2021. She battled injuries for much of 2022 and is currently pregnant with her first child, but she said she plans to return after giving birth.
In Sabalenka’s case, the decision came after two tense exchanges with Daria Meshcheryakova, a part-time journalist from Ukraine who works for the Ukrainian-based sports newspaper Tribuna.
In the first exchange, Meshcheryakova asked Sabalenka what her message was to the world about the war and why Ukrainian players claimed to “hate” her. Sabalenka denied such statements and spoke as candidly about the war as ever.
“No one in the world, no Russian player, no Belarusian player, supports the war. No one,” said Sabalenka, who lives in Miami. “How can you support war? No one, no ordinary person, will ever support it.”
Three days later, after Sabalenka’s second-round match, Meshcheriakova said of the letter she allegedly signed in support of Lukashenko in 2020, “a time when he was torturing and beating demonstrators in the streets.” and objected to her for participating in the new tournament. Celebrate a year with him.
The letter Sabalenka allegedly signed has not been made public, nor has her New Year celebrations with the Belarusian president been independently verified, but there are numerous photos of Sabalenka and Lukashenko together. In an interview on Friday, Mesheliakova, who left Kiev for the Netherlands 10 days after the war started when a missile landed near her apartment, said her parents still live in Russian-occupied Luhansk. He said he had heard from her about the letter and the New Year celebrations. Prominent Belarusian journalists were forced to leave the country.
“It’s true,” Mesheliakova said, “and you’ve seen how she reacted.”
Sabalenka said she had no comment on either question and proceeded to answer Meshcheriakova’s next question. Alina, you are no small human. “
However, Sabalenka quickly cut off the talk when the host stated that she had made it clear that she would not comment further.
“It’s all clear for us,” Meshcheriakova said, ending the exchange.
Elina Svitolina, who seems to be the unofficial leader of the Ukrainian members on the tour, simply wanted to hear from Russian and Belarusian national team players that they believed their country should end the war. Said it was just
“I think almost all Ukrainians would like to hear that from their side,” Svitolina said after her three-set victory over Anna Brinkova.
Like all Ukrainian players, Svitolina did not shake Blinkova’s hand after the match.
“Can you imagine now the men and women on the front lines looking at me and acting like nothing happened,” Svitolina said. “I represent my country. I have a voice.”
Sabalenka will face Sloane Stephens (USA) in the fourth round on Sunday. It is not yet clear if she will speak to reporters after the game.
Meshcheriakova, who also works as a sports reporter and political analyst, said she would return to her day job after Saturday. She reportedly used her time off to cover the tournament and paid for her herself.
In Osaka’s case, tournament officials said not requiring her to attend a press conference could give her an unfair advantage over other players.
Stevens, a member of the WTA players’ council, said on Friday he supported Sabalenka’s decision not to attend the press conference and said all players have the right to feel comfortable fulfilling their media obligations.
“Everyone needs to feel good about themselves and what they’re doing,” says Stevens. “She doesn’t have to be there if she doesn’t feel safe. That’s it.”
Meshcheriakova said she spoke with her parents earlier in the day. Her mother had seen Russian media coverage of the story, she said. In it she was described using the Russian word for black cross-dresser. She begged her daughter to stop covering her tournament and leave immediately.
“Of course I told her not,” Mesheliakova said. “I am a journalist.”