She would like to talk only about tennis. But constantly brought back to the war in Ukraine, Aryna Sabalenka, who is struggling to forget her past marks of support for the authoritarian Belarusian head of state Alexander Lukashenko, has chosen to no longer speak at Roland-Garros. Sovereign on the Parisian ocher, Sabalenka did not appear at a press conference during her last two victories, and nothing seems to indicate that she will reappear there after her quarter-final Tuesday on the Central against the Ukrainian Elina Svitolina . The latter should also refrain from shaking his hand, as every time she faces Russians and Belarusians.
The cause of this boycott? “Wednesday (after the second round), I did not feel safe”, argues one of the favorites of the Major to explain this decision taken for her “own mental health” and her “well-being”. In a tense exchange, a Ukrainian journalist asked the Belarusian player to justify her links with Alexander Lukashenko, whose regime is carrying out a relentless crackdown on critical voices in his country and supports Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. The previous round, she had to comment on the refusal to shake hands with her opponent of the day, Marta Kostyuk, another Ukrainian.
“The president supports sport”
Sabalenka “came out of her two press conferences very touched”, slips the director of the tournament Amélie Mauresmo, who, for the moment, authorizes her to avoid this exercise in principle compulsory. If she refuses to shake hands with all the Russian and Belarusian players, Kostyuk had been particularly offensive with Sabalenka, whom she had explained “not to respect”, accusing her of not taking a clear position on the invasion of Ukraine. and war. Beyond her passport, Sabalenka pays for her links with Lukashenko displayed in the past. As of 2018, they meet one-on-one. A meeting organized at the request of the player, says the state agency Belta.
In 2019, in an interview with the independent media Tut.by (closed since the 2020 protests against power, and whose two leaders were recently sentenced to twelve years in prison), she paid tribute to him: “Obviously, it’s good to be born in a country where the president supports sport like no one else and is ready to help in difficult times.” On December 31, 2020, after a year marked by the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus, Sabalenka participates in Minsk in a toast with Lukashenko for the new year, along with other figures supporting the regime.
At the same time, according to the Belta agency, she signed an open letter, like 3,000 other Belarusian sportsmen, against the creation of a “Union of Free Sportsmen of Belarus” supporting the political opposition.
“He can comment whatever he wants”
The Belarusian president regularly praises his performance. At the start of the year, he toasts her after her victory at the Australian Open. At the end of March, he announced that he would “talk to her” after her loss at the WTA 1000 in Miami. An ostentatious support which becomes embarrassing for Sabalenka: “I am almost sure that it does not help” to make me popular, she said in April in Stuttgart. “I don’t know what to say because he can comment on my matches, he can comment on whatever he wants,” she added.
The 1.82m right-hander keeps repeating it, she has “nothing to do with politics”: “If the Ukrainians hate me after his speech, what can I do about it? If they feel better hating me, I don’t mind helping them that way.” “I’ve said it many times: no Russian or Belarusian player supports the war,” she said after her match against Kostyuk. “Nobody. How can you support war? Normal people don’t. Why do you have to say that stuff loud and clear? It’s obvious, like 1+1=2. term, we would do it right away.” Kostyuk, and no doubt Svitolina and the Ukrainians, are asking for more.