Politics Off Wimbledon Agenda For Aryna Sabalenka As Elina Svitolina Sees 'Spark Of Magic'
Belarus tennis star Aryna Sabalenka laid down the law from the outset at Wimbledon on Saturday, insisting she will not get dragged back into the emotional maelstrom of discussing the Ukraine conflict
Belarus tennis star Aryna Sabalenka laid down the law from the outset at Wimbledon on Saturday, insisting she will not get dragged back into the emotional maelstrom of discussing the Ukraine conflict. The world number two and reigning Australian Open champion boycotted two media conferences at the recent French Open after facing a barrage of questions over the war and her links to Alexander Lukashenko, her country's president and key ally of Russia.
"Before we continue I would like to say I'm not going to talk about politics," the 25-year-old told reporters at the traditional pre-Wimbledon media briefing. "I'm here to talk about tennis only. Please respect that.
"If you have any kind of political questions, you can ask the WTA or the tournament. They can send you the transcript of my answers from the previous tournaments."
Sabalenka refused to attend two post-match press conferences in Paris, claiming she did not feel "safe" in the environment. When she eventually resumed media duties, she insisted that she did not support either the ongoing war in Ukraine or Lukashenko.
Asked if she had come under pressure to make her opening statement on Saturday, she insisted "it's my personal decision".
Sabalenka, along with all Belarusian and Russian players, were banned from Wimbledon in 2022 because of the conflict. This year the suspension has been lifted but they all must sign declarations of neutrality.
They must also prove they are not backed by state bodies or have financial support from companies under sanction because of the war.
"I have no expectations," said Sabalenka when asked how she thought she may be received by the Wimbledon crowds.
'Don't have childhood'
"I only have hope that they will support me as they did in the last years - hopefully. That's it."
Despite her problems in Paris, Sabalenka still made the semi-finals, defeating a pair of Ukrainian rivals, Marta Kostyuk and Elina Svitolina on the way.
Both Kostyuk and Svitolina were booed by the Roland Garros fans for their defiant gesture of refusing to shake hands with Belarusian or Russian opponents. Svitolina said Saturday that the war in Ukraine has "thrown tennis in the country back by 10 years".
"The list of venues and clubs and sports destroyed by missiles it's very sad. I can't imagine when it will get back to normal," she said.
Svitolina said it was crucial, however, that the sport survives having witnessed the difference tennis makes when she last held a clinic in the country in February.
"Seeing the kids play tennis, it was like a spark of magic," said the 28-year-old. "They were so intense with the war and their parents not there 100 percent of the time. They don't really have a childhood. We tried to give them the light to keep dreaming."
Svitolina said she feels no bitterness towards the All England Club after they decided to lift their ban on Russian and Belarusian players.
"They had to choose. There was pressure there, they didn't want to lose a Slam tournament but we are still thankful that they banned them last year. It's what we fought for," added Svitolina, a semi-finalist at Wimbledon in 2019.
The world number 75 starts her campaign on Centre Court on Monday against five-time winner Venus Williams. Sabalenka made the semi-finals at Wimbledon on her last appearance in 2021, losing a tough three-setter against Karolina Pliskova.
With world number one Iga Swiatek having yet to get beyond the last 16 and defending champion Elena Rybakina struggling to recover from a virus, Sabalenka is widely regarded as a champion-in-waiting. "I'm pretty sure if I bring my best tennis that I can do really well at Wimbledon," she said.