Belarusian tennis star Aryna Sabalenka laid the law from the start at Wimbledon on Saturday, insisting she wouldn’t be swept up in the emotional maelstrom of discussing the conflict in Ukraine. The world number two and reigning Australian Open champion boycotted two media conferences at the recent French Open after facing a barrage of questions about the war and her ties to Alexander Lukashenko, her country’s president and key ally from Russia.
“Before we go any further, I want to say I’m not going to talk about politics,” the 25-year-old told reporters at the traditional pre-Wimbledon media briefing. “I’m just here to talk about tennis. Please respect that.
“If you have any political questions, you can ask the WTA or the tournament. They can send you the transcript of my answers from the previous tournaments.”
Sabalenka refused to attend two post-match press conferences in Paris, claiming she did not feel “safe” in the environment. When she eventually resumed her media duties, she insisted that she did not support the ongoing war in Ukraine or Lukashenko.
When asked if she had been pressured to make her opening statement on Saturday, she insisted “it’s my personal decision”.
Sabalenka, along with all Belarusian and Russian players, was banned from Wimbledon in 2022 over the conflict. This year the suspension has been lifted, but they all have to sign a declaration of neutrality.
They also have to prove that they are not backed by government agencies or receive financial support from companies sanctioned because of the war.
“I have no expectations,” Sabalenka said when asked how she thought she would be received by the Wimbledon crowds.
‘Have no youth’
“I only have hope that they will support me as they have for the past few years – hopefully. That’s all.”
Despite her troubles in Paris, Sabalenka still made it to the semifinals, beating a pair of Ukrainian rivals, Marta Kostyuk and Elina Svitolina along the way.
Both Kostyuk and Svitolina were booed by the Roland Garros fans for their defiant gesture of refusing to shake hands with Belarusian or Russian opponents. Svitolina said on Saturday that the war in Ukraine “threw tennis in the country back ten years”.
“The list of venues and clubs and sports that have been destroyed by missiles is very sad. I can’t imagine when it will go back to normal,” she said.
However, Svitolina said it was critical for the sport to survive after witnessing the difference tennis makes when she last held a clinic in the country in February.
“When I saw the kids play tennis, it was like a spark of magic,” said the 28-year-old. “They were so intense with the war and their parents weren’t there 100 percent of the time. They don’t really have a childhood. We tried to give them the light to keep dreaming.”
Svitolina said she feels no bitterness towards the All England Club after they decided to lift their suspensions for Russian and Belarusian players.
“They had to choose. There was pressure there, they didn’t want to lose a Slam tournament, but we are still grateful that they banned them last year. We fought for that,” added Svitolina, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2019 .
The number 75 in the world starts her campaign on Monday at Center Court against five-time winner Venus Williams. Sabalenka made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon on her last appearance in 2021, losing a tough three-setter to Karolina Pliskova.
With world number one Iga Swiatek yet to progress past the last 16 and defending champion Elena Rybakina struggling to recover from a virus, Sabalenka is widely regarded as a champion in waiting. “I’m pretty sure if I bring my best tennis I can do really well at Wimbledon,” she said.
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