“My reaction was like, what are you doing? I’m not shaking hands” – Svitolina surprised about Sabalenka’s attitude
There was only one certainty about what would happen after the match between Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina and Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka. Or rather, it was known what would not happen: there would be no handshake at the net. Sabalenka won, celebrated, and planted herself leaning on the net, waiting for Svitolina. As if expecting the unexpected as Svitolina walked from the baseline.
“My initial reaction was like, What are you doing? In my press conferences I’ve clearly stated my position. I’m not shaking hands (with Russians and Belarusians). It’s very simple,” Elina Svitolina said in front of the media after Sabalenka’s 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Does Sabalenka add fuel to the fire to the handshakes affair by standing at the net like that? Svitolina was asked in the press room:”Yes. Unfortunately.”
It was well explained by the former world No. 3 since she arrived in Paris, by the way, her first Grand Slam since giving birth to her first daughter in October: shaking hands with her rivals from Russia and Belarus is not an option, as a gesture of support for her government in times when her country has been invaded for 15 months by the nation led by Vladimir Putin, with the support of the Belarusians.
Part of the Phillippe Chatrier reproached with boos just when Svitolina went directly to her bench, confirming the non-salute. The Ukrainian did not care much: “I have my position and I stand firm. I will not sell my country to please people”.
Contrast situation, because in the absence of French athletes in the singles draw at Roland Garros, the Parisian fans adopted Svitolina as one of their own: the champion of 17 WTA titles is married to French Gael Monfils, father of her daughter Skai.
Different was the post-match greeting in the round of 16, against a player who was also not going to receive the handshake of the best player in the short Ukrainian history. Daria Kasatkina, who is the WTA’s Russian most vocal opponent of the war, gave her a friendly thumbs-up. Respectful, moreover, of Svitolina’s choice. The Ukrainian responded also with gestures of respect, which was followed by words of good breeding at a press conference.
“I am really grateful for her position. She showed a lot of courage to have spoken publicly about her opposition, unlike many other players who have not. She is a brave one,” Elina Svitolina said of the 26-year-old tennis player. Kasatkina has expressed in the past that she understands and respects the Ukrainian’s decision not to shake her hand, and does not take it personally.
The world number two, who still has a chance to take the number one ranking from Iga Swiatek at the French Open tennis tournament, claimed to feel insecure in front of journalists. She asked to “protect her mental health” post being asked after the first two rounds about war issues and her once expressed support for Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Sabalenka was excused by the tournament not to attend the post-match press conference (second and third rounds), which is part of the contractual obligations of tennis players in Grand Slam tournaments (when they do not attend, they are given a fine that is reduced from their prize money). The French Tennis Federation accepted Sabalenka’s request and sent her statements to journalists after an interview with a member of the WTA, after her 16 round match.
Different treatment with the one that Naomi Osaka had. In 2021 the Japanese wanted to skip press conferences. She was fined 15 thousand dollars after her non-presentation at the pre-tournament conference. The organization then warned that according to the rules, such repeated behavior could mean disqualification and subsequent punishment in other Grand Slams. Osaka opted to withdraw.
“It should be the same for everyone – why Naomi was fined and this year there is no fine for the player?” said Elina Svitolina.
“I am with my country and I do my best to support, to convey a positive spirit for the men and women who are on the front line, who fight for our land. So, imagine those who are on the front lines if they see me and I’m acting as if nothing happened? I represent my country, I have a voice, I have a position in this war. What Russia and its soldiers have done on our land is terrible,” the Ukrainian noted.
“This war touches many areas. It touches sports, it touches the arts. We are Ukrainians united, you know? That’s how we stand,” said the Olympic medalist in Tokyo 2020, whose most important goal upon her return to the courts after becoming a mother is to win a Grand Slam.
She was a semifinalist at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2019, but today she says she feels like a teenager, better than ever: “I feel like I’m 17 again, coming fresh to the tour. I’m not defending points here, not next week either. I definitely feel freer.”