PARIS — Two years after Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open when she was fined, then threatened with disqualification, for skipping news conferences, another top tennis player — No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion — was allowed to avoid the traditional postmatch session open to all accredited journalists and instead speak Friday with what was described as a “pool” of selected questioners.
Sabalenka, who is from Belarus, didn’t appear at a news conference Friday after reaching the fourth round at Roland Garros for the first time with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Kamilla Rakhimova. After each of her previous two wins this week, Sabalenka was asked about her stance on the war in Ukraine, which began in February 2022, when Russia invaded that country with help from Belarus.
Sabalenka said she “did not feel safe” at her news conference Wednesday and wanted to protect her “mental health and well-being.” Sabalenka’s desire to bypass the standard Q-and-A was supported by the tournament and the WTA. She will not be fined.
The topic of the war was raised at both earlier news conferences by Daria Meshcheriakova, a part-time journalist from the Ukraine for a sports outlet she said gets 7 million views per month. Meshcheriakova, who said she used to be an employee of the German embassy in Kyiv, left Ukraine 10 days after the war began and moved to the Netherlands.
Sabalenka’s first match at this French Open was against a player from Ukraine, Marta Kostyuk, who refused to shake hands at the net afterward — as she’s done against all opponents from Russia or Belarus since the attacks began. Kostyuk was booed by fans apparently unaware of why she declined the usual gesture.
Two spokespeople for the French Tennis Federation wouldn’t say who was allowed to talk with Sabalenka on Friday, but a transcript was distributed to the media. The first “question” was: “Before we start, I know there was a tense situation in your second-round press conference, and if you wanted to address it at all.”
The response, according to the transcript: “After my match, I spoke with the media like I normally do. I know they still expect some questions that are more about the politics and not so much about my tennis. For many months now I have answered these questions at tournaments and been very clear in my feelings and my thoughts. These questions do not bother me after my matches. I know that I have to provide answers to the media on things not related to my tennis or my matches, but on Wednesday I did not feel safe in (the) press conference. 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. It hasn’t been an easy few days, and now my focus is (to) continue to play well here in Paris.”
What followed were topics such as how Sabalenka played Friday, her previous track record at Roland Garros, her fitness training and what types of movies she has been watching.
At the 2021 French Open, Osaka — a four-time major champion and former No. 1 — shined a light on the issue of athletes’ mental health by saying she did not want to speak to the media during the tournament. She was docked $15,000 for skipping the news conference after her first-round victory in Paris, then was threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with possible additional punishment, including disqualification or suspension, if she continued to sit out those availabilities.
Osaka then pulled out of the competition, saying she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and revealed she has “suffered long bouts of depression.”
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