‘I don’t support the war, I don’t support president Alexander Lukashenko’: Belarus tennis star Aryna Sabalenka
“I’m not supporting the war. I don’t support war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko,” the world number two said after reaching the French Open semi-finals by defeating Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.
The 25-year-old had come under increasing pressure to distance herself from her apparent close relationship with Lukashenko, a key military ally of Moscow in the ongoing conflict.
“We played a lot of Fed Cups in Belarus. He (Lukashenko) was in our matches taking pictures with us after the match. Nothing bad was happening that time in Belarus or in Ukraine or in Russia,” she told reporters.
Sabalenka had cancelled two previous press conferences at Roland Garros, claiming she didn’t feel “safe” after facing a barrage of questions over her links to her country’s strongman leader.
As Australian Open champion and potential world number one after the French Open, she was pressed by Ukraine rivals to individually stand up against the war. “I don’t want my country to be involved in any conflict. I said it many times. You have my position. You have my answer,” she said. “I don’t want sport to be involved in politics, because I’m just a 25-year-old tennis player. And if I would like to be political I wouldn’t be here. I don’t want to be involved in any politics.”
Sabalenka has had close associations with Lukashenko in the past.
In 2018, she requested a one-to-one meeting with him, according to Belarusian state news agency Belta.
The following year, in an interview with the country’s largest independent news site Tut.by — since shuttered following a brutal crackdown after historic demonstrations against Lukashenko — she spoke glowingly of the Belarusian leader.
On December 31, 2020, after a year marked by the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus, Sabalenka toasted the new year with Lukashenko in Minsk.
Lukashenko praised Sabalenka when she won the Australian Open in January.
At the end of Tuesday’s match, Svitolina chose not to shake the hand of Sabalenka, a common practice now in the sport when a Ukrainian player meets a Russian or Belarusian opponent.
Svitolina was booed by the crowd while Sabalenka stood at the net.
The Ukrainian accused Sabalenka of deliberately “inflaming” the situation.
“It just was an instinct like I always do after all my matches,” said Sabalenka of her decision to approach the net.
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