PARIS (AP) — Aryna Sabalenka smacked a forehand winner to reach the French Open semifinals for the first time, then strode forward. Placing both hands atop the net tape, she leaned forward and stared directly at Elina Svitolina, her Ukrainian opponent.
Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion whose nation, Belarus, helped Russia invade Ukraine to begin a war that now is in its 17th month, knew that Svitolina would not participate Tuesday in the usual postmatch handshake. Like other players from Ukraine, including Sabalenka’s first-round opponent at Roland Garros last week, Svitolina has avoided that traditional greeting after any match against someone from Russia or Belarus, for obvious reasons.
Although not, apparently, obvious to the second-seeded Sabalenka in that moment; she explained — while speaking with the media after avoiding news conferences after the preceding two contests — that she went to the net out of “instinct.” Nor, apparently, obvious to some members of the crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier for Sabalenka’s 6-4, 6-4 victory, because there was a smattering of boos directed at Svitolina afterward, thinking she was breaching tennis etiquette, not taking a stand related to what is happening in her country.
When she saw Sabalenka standing there after the match, Svitolina said, “My initial reaction ... was like, ’What are you doing?”
Asked whether Sabalenka might have inflamed the situation by waiting at the net, Svitolina replied: “Yeah, I think so, unfortunately.”
In Thursday's semifinals, Sabalenka will play unseeded Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic, a 7-5, 6-2 winner over 2021 runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Sabalenka returned to the standard Q-and-A setting with reporters Tuesday, after skipping two such sessions because, she said, she “did not feel safe” after being asked about Belarus and Ukraine at her news conference last Wednesday — which was attended by a journalist from Ukraine who now is no longer at the tournament — and wanted to protect her “mental health and well-being.”
Sabalenka said Tuesday that she “felt really bad not coming” to do interviews and “all those bad feelings was in my head, I couldn’t fall asleep.” She also said she didn't regret it, because she “felt really disrespected” and felt as if the occasion “became a political TV show.”
Sabalenka said she did feel safe Tuesday, “probably because I had a few days to switch off” and because “nobody’s putting words in my mouth.”
One of the topics of earlier news conferences was raised again Tuesday: her relationship with Belarus' authoritarian leader, President Alexander Lukashenko.
“I don’t want my country to be involved in any conflict. I said it many times, and you know where I stand. You have my position. You have my answer. I answered it many times. I’m not supporting the war,” Sabalenka said, adding a moment later: “I don’t want to be involved in any politics. I just want to be a tennis player.”
A reporter asked whether she supports Lukashenko.
“It's a tough question,” Sabalenka said. “I mean, I don’t support war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko right now.”
Svitolina had become a fan favorite during this tournament, at least in part because this was her first major in nearly 1 1/2 years after being away from tennis while having a baby — which is why she came to Paris “with zero hopes, with zero expectations,” she said, even as someone who twice was a Slam semifinalist — and because she is married to a French player, Gael Monfils, who was in the stands Tuesday.
Still, Svitolina said she was not surprised to hear some negativity from the crowd, because she had seen what happened when other Ukrainians refused to shake hands with opponents, win or lose. Maybe, she said, the tournament or the WTA Tour should make clearer to everyone why that's the case.
She also thought it was not necessarily fair that Sabalenka went unpunished for sitting out news conferences, noting that Naomi Osaka was fined — and eventually withdrew from the French Open — two years ago after she declined to meet with journalists.
Svitolina pointed out that she also has dealt with tough questions at Roland Garros.
“I’m not escaping. I have my strong position, and I’m vocal about that,” Svitolina said, adding that she is not going to try to get people to like her “by betraying my strong belief and strongest position for my country.”