Sabalenka-Svitolina Clash Brings Russia-Ukraine Conflict Back.

French Open: Ukraine's Elina Svitolina, who beat Russia's Daria Kasatkina on Sunday, will face second-seeded Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka in the quarterfinal on Tuesday.

Jun 6, 2023 - 15:37
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Sabalenka-Svitolina Clash Brings Russia-Ukraine Conflict Back.
Ukraine's Elina Svitolina.

Press Conferences and the French Open do not make for a healthy combination. In 2021,Naomi Osaka caused major controversy after she decided to snub post-match press obligations to protect her mental health, following which mental strife and injury brought the career of the four-time Major champion to a halt. Two years on, Sunday, Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka got past a tetchy fourth-round encounter against Sloane Stephens, and then skipped the obligatory press conference for the second time in succession. Sabalenka's reasons were the same as Osaka, but have been part of a wider headache for organisers throughout the event. After being pressed by a Ukrainian journalist following her first two wins at Roland Garros to speak about her support of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko-Belarus is a key supporter of Russia in the war, with the country's territory being used in the military offensive -Sabalenka declared she will snub the press because she "did not feel safe" before the media. 

After the first round, according to the New York Times, Sabalenka was asked by Ukrainian writer Daria Meshcheriakova what her message to the world was about the war, to which she responded:"Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belrusian athletes support the war. "Three days later, the same writer pressed her on her closeness to Lukashenko, claiming she had signed a letter of support for the Belrusian president in 2020 and that she had participated in New Year's Eve celebrations with him. The letter has not been made public, but images of her with Lukashenko have been doing the rounds on social media. The controversy around the decisions of Sabalenka, the World No. 2 who is one of the favourites to lift the title in Paris, might spark a debate on whether athletes should be compelled to make their political views public, especially in cases where they could be under threat of intimidation. 

In this case, though, it has reopened a wider debate about the role of sports in the war in Ukraine, especially considering Sabalenka's quarterfinal opponent on Tuesday. Ellina Svitolina was never the most popular player on tour. Her game, based around elite defence, solid movement and dogged patience did not produce highlight-worthy shotmaking. With the sidelining of counter-punching, a playing style that was once at the summit of the game through the likes of Simona Halep and Carolina Wizniacki, the women's tour has begun to be dominated more by first-strike attacking tennis of the mould of Iga Swiatek and Sabalenka. But over the last week in Paris, there is no player getting a greater reception from stadium crowds than Svitolina, who attempts to reach a final French Open semifinal against Sabalenka on Tuesday. 

The 28-year old has plenty going for her to make her a crowd favorite. Her story, of returning from successful pregnancy to tennis only in April and making it to the quarterfinal of the first Major since, her husband, Gael Monfis, an icon of this generation of French tennis who himself played out a thrilling opening-round win in Paris before withdrawing due to injury, and her nationality, being one of only two Ukrainians, alongside Lesia Tsurenko, to make it to the final eight at Roland Garros. The kind of support the French are known to give their own- and to Monfils-has been extended to Svitolina this week, which came to the fore following her win on Sunday when the Parisian crowd booed her opponent, Russia's Daria Kasatkina, off the court. Svitolina had confirmed that as someone representing her country at the elite level, she will not shake hands with Russians or Belarusians, but smiled and put her thumbs up in acknowledgement of Kasatkina, who is one of, if not the only, professional tennis players to have actively spoken out against the war, calling it "a full nightmare".

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