In retrospect, the French Open was probably destined for a moment like Tuesday’s.
During the 10 days in Paris and months on the women’s professional tennis tour, Ukrainian players have made it clear that they will not shake hands with Russian or Belarusian players after matches. No. 2 seed and one of the favorites to win the women’s singles title, Alina Sabalenka of Belarus, everyone knows this. She beat Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk in the first round last week, then watched as Kostyuk packed up her belongings and walked off the court amid a chorus of boos.
Regardless of the hostility from the crowd, there was zero chance that Elina Svitolina, the unofficial leader of Ukrainian women’s footballers, would act differently when it was her turn to face Sabalenka on Tuesday. Sabalenka beat Svitolina 6-4, 6-4 with a final hard rally and a final hard forehand.
So Svitolina said seeing Sabalenka waiting at the net and staring at her when the match was over, a thought crossed her mind. “what are u doing?”
Did Svitolina know that the Roland Garros crowd had been yelling at players for abandoning the post-match handshake and thought Sabalenka was taking advantage of the moment?
“Yes, unfortunately I think so,” Svitolina said at the post-match press conference.
Sabalenka later denied doing so.
“It was just an instinct,” she said. Because that’s what she always does at the end of a match.
It was news in itself that Sabalenka said something. After Friday’s third-round win, Sabalenka skipped the mandatory post-fight press conference, opting instead for interviews with WTA officials only. She did the same after winning the fourth round.
At the French Open, tennis was often overshadowed by geopolitics. Novak Djokovic, the 22-time Grand Slam champion and Serbia’s biggest celebrity, was joined by Serb protesters in Kosovo late last month as they clashed with NATO forces over control of the region and the status of the country with more than 100 nations. declared solidarity with Allowed, but not Serbia and Russia. In front of television cameras, Djokovic even scribbled on a plastic board that Kosovo was the heart of Serbia. Kosovar supporters called the remarks fascist, accusing them of supporting philosophies that lead to ethnic cleansing.
Politics became inevitable for Sabalenka after her draw with emerging Ukrainian Kostyuk in the first round, but a Ukrainian journalist asked about her earlier remarks about ending the war if she could. The journalist also noted Sabalenka’s past close ties with Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko, who allowed Russia to use the country as a stopover point in the Ukraine war. . The internet is flooded with photos and videos of her with Lukashenko after Sabalenka arrested political opponents and used the army and police to quell protests.
After these press conferences, Sabalenka announced that she no longer felt “safe” to face the press and would only speak to WTA officials after the next two games. The WTA and tournament organizers backed her decision, waiving fines and threats of tougher penalties she imposed on Naomi Osaka for doing the same thing at the French Open two years ago.
“I felt really disrespected,” Sabalenka said Tuesday of her first two tense press conferences.
While Sabalenka struggled off the court, Svitolina was the talk of the tournament. She’s spent much of the past year on maternity leave and fundraising for Ukraine relief efforts, wowing the crowd with her first four Grand Slam matches since the birth of her daughter. Her hometown fans have a special affinity for Svitolina, who is married to French tennis player Gael Monfils, who was courtside at all of her matches.
Her victory set off a showdown with Sabalenka that felt like more than just a match between tennis players.
It was a match between Ukraine and Belarus. One of the sport’s most beloved players faced off against a 25-year-old who fans still know well. Some became popular culture figures in war relief efforts. The other did not reveal where his loyalties lay.
Under pressure from Ukrainian journalists, Sabalenka said she did not support the war, saying “no normal person would support this war”, but did not give up her support for Mr Lukashenko.
When it comes to tennis, it’s a duel between Svitolina the honed retriever and Sabalenka, arguably the biggest hitter in the women’s game, and unless Sabalenka’s old erratic self shows up, today Svitolina’s It soon became clear that the day would never come. Sabalenka is stable and Svitolina is out. Sabalenka will face Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic in Thursday’s semi-final.
Then there was the awkward confrontation at the end, with Sabalenka waiting at the net and Svitolina’s actions as she packed her bags and left the court with some booing.
“She didn’t deserve this,” Sabalenka said of howling.
Svitolina said everyone might be better off if the WTA and tournament organizers made it clear to Russian and Belarusian players that they would not shake hands as long as there was a war. She also said one player shouldn’t get the benefit of ignoring the potential stress of facing the news media while the other player has to sit in front of the microphone and answer any questions. Stated.
“We faced difficulties,” Svitolina said. “I am not running away. I have a strong position, and I will speak out about it.” I said I wouldn’t.
When Sabalenka’s turn came, she once again voiced her opposition to the war, and tried to keep her distance from Lukashenko when pressured by journalists from Poland. The Ukrainian journalist who previously questioned her did not cover the second week of her tournament.
“I don’t support the war, which means I don’t support Lukashenko now,” Sabalenka said.
She spoke about how her decision to miss a previous press conference had left her unable to sleep, saying she felt bad about it and intended not to miss it again, but did not regret the decision.
“I don’t want to get involved in any politics,” she said. “I just want to be a tennis player.”
For the time being, a date for the final against Poland’s Iga Światek, who wears a Ukrainian flag pin while playing, could be considered, but that may not be possible.