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 Aleksandr 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.
Sabalenka’s action came following two tense exchanges earlier in the week 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.
“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.”