The war in Ukraine takes centre court at Roland Garros
If you decided overnight to stop watching tennis at Roland Garros and get in a car, you would be at war in just over 18 hours: that’s how long it takes to drive from Paris to Lviv, the westernmost city in Ukraine, which since February 2022 has been defending itself against Russia’s invasion. It is true that few things are more different than a tennis tournament and a war, but this Sunday, at the start of the French Open, the two issues merged into one. Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, the world number two with the number one ranking in her sights, knows this well.
Sabalenka opened the day on Centre Court Philippe Chatrier against Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk. As is well known, Ukrainian players do not shake hands with Russian and Belarusian players at the end of their matches. And that’s what happened after Sabalenka’s 6-3, 6-2 win over the 39th-ranked player.
Things, however, took a strange turn: the crowd booed Kostyuk for not saluting her opponent at the net, but Sabalenka thought the rejection was directed at her and directed an ironic bow to the stands. She immediately spoke to the chair umpire and her coaching staff in the stands, until she understood that the shouts were directed at Kostyuk from a crowd that did not seem to be aware of the reasons for withholding the handshake.
The story went back a long way. Over the weekend, Kostyuk had criticised Sabalenka. She told Ukrainian website Tennis BTU: “After this tournament, Sabalenka could be the new number one. Having such a big platform and so much influence in the world, she rejects it. What kind of message is this to the world? We are talking about people being killed and, in response, we hear that we should leave sport out of politics. But war doesn’t choose whether you’re a sportsman or not when it comes to your home.”
Kostyuk, the clearest voice in Ukrainian tennis, also criticised Sabalenka for training in Russia and for not taking her family out of Belarus, a country allied with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, when she had the financial means to do so.
Once in the press room, Sabalenka, who won the Australian Open in January and recently won the Madrid Open, was met by journalists eager to understand more about what had happened. And to know what she thought.
She found herself, too, faced with a 177-word question posed in English.
The question was as follows: “With this Roland Garros you might become World No. 1. As World No. 1, you should be a role model. I think you are already a role model for many people, for many tennis players in the world. World No. 1 is a very difficult status. What is your message to the world? Because meanwhile, this situation with Ukrainian players show that you’re twisting it as if Ukrainians hate you, but they do not say that they hate you. The only thing they want to know from you is either you condemn the war or you support the war. This is the only thing that Ukrainian players want to hear. You’re avoiding this question. You’re coming up with different answers. So you say it’s politics, even though missiles launched from Belarus does not choose if it’s a politician or tennis player. What is your message as the World No. 1? How can you sort it out with Ukrainian players that there is no more words “hate” or something like that? Thank you.”
Sabalenka was undaunted and responded articulately and profoundly.
“First of all, I’m not saying that they say they hate me,” she started to say before the journalist interrupted her with a “you did”.
“No, but listen,” the Belarusian continued.
“First of all, when I get the question about Ukrainians, they ask me, like, So you know that they hate you? Like not personally or politically, they asking the question. So I’m answering the question that if they hate me, like I don’t feel anything like that.
“About the war situation, I said it many, many times: Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. 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. If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could like stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it’s not in our hands. That’s the part about Ukrainians.
“The secondly, as the World No. 1, what’s my message? Okay, let’s get back to the country. I’m from small country, from Belarus, who was working really hard to get to this level. This is the message to a lot of young athletes who are from small countries, who don’t have enough money, who’s just from the small countries, that they can do well in this sport. That they have to work hard and believe in their selves and they can do whatever they want to. This is my main message as World No. 1.
“I don’t know if I’m role model for a lot of people or, as I said, there’s going to be people who don’t like me and there is going to be people who likes me. I’m focusing on people who likes me and who want me to be the best. You know, I want to show my best tennis, I want people to enjoy tennis matches, to enjoy my matches. So this is my message, to bring the joy for people. I don’t know.”
Sabalenka’s words did not move Kostyuk.
“She never says that she personally doesn’t support this war, and I feel that journalists should do that, because you do a great job in lightening things up and asking people their opinion on certain things, and I feel that you should change the questions you ask these athletes because the war is already there (…). It’s been 15 months since the war started.
“I think you should ask these players who they would want to win the war, because if you ask this question, I’m not so sure that these people would say they want Ukraine to win….”.
The war, 18 hours away from Paris by road, settled dialectically in the Bois de Boulogne. In the next round, Sabalenka knows not to worry: her opponent will be Iryna Shymanovich from Belarus. The two are sure to shake hands at the end of the match.