Aryna Sabalenka opts out of media duties for sake of her ‘mental health’ | French Open 2023

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Aryna Sabalenka opted out of a post-match press conference after her third-round win over Kamilla Rakhimova on Friday following a number of tense exchanges with a Ukrainian reporter about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after previous rounds here.

Players are required to attend post-match press conferences if they are requested by written media, but no time was announced for Sabalenka after she had beaten Rakhimova 6-2, 6-2. Instead, a transcript of her conversation with an unnamed member of staff was released without explanation. It is unclear whether Sabalenka was interviewed by a group of people or only one person.

Sabalenka began by explaining that she did not feel safe after her second-round press conference and that she had decided not to attend on Friday for the sake of her mental health.

“For many months now I have answered these questions at tournaments and been very clear in my feelings and my thoughts,” said Sabalenka, who is from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, an ally of Russia. “These questions do not bother me after my matches. I know that I have to provide answers to the media on things not related to my tennis or my matches, but on Wednesday I did not feel safe in press conference. I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches.”

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She continued: “For my own mental health and well-being, I have decided to take myself out of this situation today, and the tournament has supported me in this decision. It hasn’t been an easy few days, and now my focus is continue to play well here in Paris.”

After Sabalenka’s first-round win against Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, a Ukrainian reporter suggested that Sabalenka had been avoiding questions about Russia’s invasion and answering in general terms. “I said it many, many times: nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war,” said Sabalenka, who was visibly irritated. “Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody, normal people will never support it. Why we have to go loud and say that things – this is like one plus one, it’s two. Of course we don’t support war.”

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Sabalenka was later criticised by Kostyuk, who had been booed off Court Philippe Chatrier after not shaking Sabalenka’s hand.

Sabalenka has previously come under fire owing to her meetings with the Belarus dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She attended Lukashenko’s new year’s address in 2021 after months of mass protests and violent repression in Belarus following the election that was widely believed to be rigged by Lukashenko.

After her second-round match, Sabalenka shared an extremely tense exchange with the same reporter on the subject of Lukashenko, with Sabalenka repeatedly declining to answer questions. “I have no comments to you, so thank you for your question,” she said.

She will face Sloane Stephens in Sunday’s fourth round. It is unclear whether she will continue to opt out of conducting conventional press conferences. In 2021 Naomi Osaka announced that she would not be doing any press conferences at that year’s French Open.

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Russia's Karen Khachanov hits a forehand against Australia's Thanasi Kokkinakis
Russia’s Karen Khachanov beat Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis in four tough sets at Roland Garros. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Karen Khachanov, who reached the men’s fourth round with a four-set win over Thanasi Kokkinakis, was also confronted about the Ukraine war on Friday. “I honestly feel very sorry and very bad to be in your place. I am honest with you,” he said to a Ukrainian journalist. “But I don’t want to talk about it. I hope you understand my point.”

Earlier in the day, third seed Jessica Pegula became the biggest casualty of the women’s draw as she was defeated 6-1, 6-3 by Elise Mertens of Belgium. Meanwhile, Elina Svitolina’s comeback continued to pick up speed as the Ukrainian recovered from a set down to defeat Russia’s Anna Blinkova 2-6, 6-2, 7-5 and reach the fourth round in her first grand slam tournament since giving birth to her daughter, Skaï.

As usual with Russian opponents, she opted not to shake Blinkova’s hand but the pair appeared to respectfully acknowledge each other after the two hour, 16 minute battle.

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