Sabalenka Skips French Open News Conference Citing Her Mental Health

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Aryna Sabalenka’s day began with a routine demolition of Kamilla Rakhimova of Russia that propelled the world’s second-ranked player, who is from Belarus, into the second week of the French Open as expected.

But then Sabalenka put herself, the tournament and tennis once more at the center of the debate over sports and the war in Ukraine by refusing to attend the mandatory post-match news conference. She said she had felt unsafe during a previous news conference this week when a journalist from Ukraine asked Sabalenka about her support of President Alexandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, which has supported Russia’s war against Ukraine.

“On Wednesday I did not feel safe in press conference,” Sabalenka was quoted as saying at the beginning of a transcript of her statements following her 6-2, 6-2 win over Rakhimova. “I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches. 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.”

Cédric Laurent, a spokesman for the French tennis federation, the F.F.T., which organizes this Grand Slam tournament, one that has been dominated by geopolitics from the start, said federation officials learned after Sabalenka’s match that she would not participate in the news conference.

French Open officials approved Sabalenka’s decision for Friday’s match but said no decision had yet been made about her news conferences during the rest of the tournament.

Laurent said a “pool” had been selected to interview Sabalenka, but he declined to specify who was in the pool or if they were members of the independent news media or worked for the tournament or the women’s tennis tour, the WTA.

A person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak on the matter said that only one person — a WTA employee — asked questions in the pool interview.

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A person familiar with the WTA’s actions who was also not authorized to speak on the matter said the organization supported Sabalenka’s desire not to participate in the news conference and the manner in which her statements were delivered.

Sabalenka’s representatives at IMG, the sports and entertainment firm that is a unit of Endeavor, did not respond to requests for comment.

The decision on Sabalenka comes two years after a confrontation with Naomi Osaka over attendance at news conferences led her to drop out of the French Open. Osaka announced on social media before the start of the tournament that she would not participate in the news conferences in order to protect her mental health and would pay whatever fines she received.

After Osaka skipped the news conference following her opening-round win, she was fined $15,000 by the tournament referee, and the leaders of the four Grand Slam competitions — the Australian, French and U.S. Opens, and Wimbledon — threatened that she could be expelled from the French Open and face harsher penalties if she would not fulfill her media obligations.

Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion and one of the world’s top-ranked players at the time, pulled out the next day, announcing for the first time that she had been battling depression and planned to take a break from tennis. She returned seven weeks later, but stepped away once more in the fall of 2021. She battled injuries for much of 2022, and is now pregnant with her first child, though she has said she intends to return after the birth.

In Sabalenka’s case, the decision came following two tense exchanges with Daria Meshcheriakova, a part-time journalist from Ukraine who works for Tribuna, a sports publication based in the country.

During the first exchange Meshcheriakova asked Sabalenka what her message to the world was about the war and why she had claimed that Ukrainian players “hate” her. Sabalenka denied having said that and then spoke as openly as she ever had regarding the war.

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“Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody,” said Sabalenka, who lives in Miami. “How can we support the war? Nobody, normal people will never support it.”

Three days later, after Sabalenka’s second-round match, Meshcheriakova challenged her about a letter she supposedly signed in 2020 in support of Lukashenko, “in times when he was torturing and beating up protesters in the street,” and about having participated in a New Year’s celebration with him.

The letter that Sabalenka supposedly signed has not been made public, and her New Year’s celebration with the Belarusian president has not been independently verified, though there are many pictures of Sabalenka and Lukashenko together. In an interview Friday, Meshcheriakova, who left Kyiv for the Netherlands 10 days after the war began when missiles landed close to her apartment and whose parents still live in Russia-occupied Luhansk, said she had learned of the letter and the New Year’s celebration from prominent Belarusian journalists who had been forced to leave the country.

“It’s true,” Meshcheriakova said, “and you saw how she responded.”

Sabalenka said she had no comments about either question, then began to answer Meshcheriakova’s next question: “So you basically support everything because you cannot speak up? You’re not a small person, Aryna.”

But Sabalenka quickly cut herself off when a moderator stated that Sabalenka had made it clear she would not comment further.

“It’s all clear to us,” Meshcheriakova said to conclude the exchange.

Elina Svitolina, who is a kind of unofficial leader of the Ukrainian members of the tour, said they simply wanted to hear from players representing Russia and Belarus that they believe their countries should end the war.

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“I think pretty much all Ukrainians would love to hear that from their side,” Svitolina said after her three-set win over Anna Blinkova of Russia.

Like the other Ukrainian players, Svitolina did not shake Blinkova’s hand after the match.

“Can you imagine the guy or a girl who is right now in a front line, you know, looking at me and I’m, like, acting like nothing is happening,” Svitolina said. “I’m representing my country. I have a voice.”

Sabalenka is scheduled to play Sloane Stephens of the United States on Sunday in the fourth round. It’s not yet clear whether she will face reporters after the match.

Meshcheriakova, who works as a political analyst in addition to covering sports, said she was returning to her day job after Saturday. She said she had been using vacation time to report on the tournament and was paying her own expenses.

In Osaka’s case, tournament officials said that not requiring Osaka to attend news conferences could give her an unfair advantage over other players.

Stephens, who is a member of the WTA Players’ Council, said Friday that she supported Sabalenka’s decision not to attend her news conference, and that every player had a right to feel safe performing her media obligations.

“Everyone needs to feel good about themselves and what they’re doing,” Stephens said. “If she doesn’t feel safe, then she doesn’t need to be there. That’s the end of that.”

Meshcheriakova said she had spoken with her parents earlier in the day. Her mother, she said, had been watching the Russian media coverage of the story, in which she was described using the Russian words for a Black cross-dresser. She implored her daughter to stop covering the tournament and to leave immediately.

“Of course I told her I wouldn’t,” Meshcheriakova said. “I’m a journalist.”

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