PARIS — Star Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka publicly broke from the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday.
Asked by POLITICO if she still supports Lukashenko, who has been aiding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sabalenka said: “It’s a tough question. I don’t support war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko right now.”
Sabalenka, currently the women’s world No. 2, had come under fire after refusing to condemn Lukashenko during a heated press conference at Roland-Garros last week. After that, she stopped taking post-match questions, saying the incident had made her feel unsafe.
While the final “right now” of Sabalenka’s answer allows her room for maneuver in future, the comment marked her clearest criticism of the longtime Belarus president.
In late 2020, Sabalenka signed a letter in support of Lukashenko’s regime in Minsk, then celebrated New Year with him — making her world sport’s most high-profile backer of the Belarusian dictator, months after he had begun a brutal crackdown on dissent, featuring torture and mass imprisonment following a disputed election in August 2020.
Returning to a packed press room Tuesday, Sabalenka said that post-match photos of her and Lukashenko earlier in her career had been taken when “nothing bad was happening at that time in Belarus or in Ukraine or in Russia.” Her critics dispute that characterization of Belarus, where Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.
“I don’t want my country to be involved in any conflict. I’m not supporting the war. I don’t want to be involved in any politics; I just want to be a tennis player,” she added.
As a tennis player, Sabalenka — who won this year’s Australian Open — is at the top of her game.
She overpowered Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina 6-4 6-4 on Wednesday afternoon, in a match that featured acrimony and high tension — and highlighted some of the dilemmas facing world sport amid Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine.
Svitolina was booed by sections of the French Open crowd after she refused to shake hands with Sabalenka, who was waiting for her at the net after the match — despite Svitolina’s established stance of not shaking hands with Russian or Belarusian players.
In her own post-match press conference, Svitolina — who was visibly emotional — blamed Sabalenka for inflaming the crowd. Sabalenka said she went to the net by “instinct” as she does after all her matches.
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