In retrospect, this French Open was probably destined to end with a moment like the one that unfolded on Tuesday.
During 10 days in Paris and months on the women’s professional tennis tour, Ukrainian tennis players made it clear that they would not shake hands with players from Russia or Belarus after their matches. Arina Sobolenko of Belarus, runner-up and one of the favorites to win the women’s singles, knows this better than anyone. Last week, she beat Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk in the first round and then watched Kostyuk pack his things. leave the court quickly to the chorus whistle.
Despite the hostility of the crowd, there was no chance that Elina Svitolina, the unofficial leader of the Ukrainian women’s team, would behave differently when it was her turn to face Sobolenko on Tuesday. Sobolenko sent Svitolina 6-4, 6-4 with one last hooligan prank and a final right hand.
And so, Svitolina said, seeing Sobolenko at the net, waiting – and waiting, and waiting – and looking at her when the match was over, one thought flashed through her head: “What are you doing?”
Did Svitolina think that Sobolenko seized the moment, knowing that the crowd at Roland Garros had previously howled at the players who refused the post-match handshake?
“Yes, I think so, unfortunately,” Svitolina said at a press conference after the match.
Sobolenko later denied doing anything of the sort.
“It was just instinct,” she said, because that’s what she always does at the end of a match.
The fact that Sobolenko said anything at all was news in itself. After winning in the third round on Friday, Sobolenko missed the mandatory post-match press conference, opting instead to only interview a WTA staff member. She did the same after winning in the fourth round.
At the French Open, geopolitics often took a backseat. Novak Djokovic, 22-time Grand Slam champion and Serbia’s biggest celebrity, has expressed his solidarity with ethnic Serb protesters who clashed with NATO forces in Kosovo at the end of last month because of the control over the region and the status of the country, which was recognized by more than 100 countries, but not by Serbia and Russia. Djokovic even scribbled in front of a television camera on a plastic sign that Kosovo is the heart of Serbia, a statement that Kosovo’s supporters have called fascist and supportive of the philosophy that led to ethnic cleansing.
For Sobalenko, talking about politics became inevitable after she drew a picture of the rising Ukrainian Kostyuk in the first round, and a journalist from Ukraine asked about her previous statements that she would end the war if she could. The journalist also mentioned Sobolenko’s close ties in the past with Belarusian President Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, who allowed Russia to use his country as a springboard for the war in Ukraine. There is no shortage of photos and videos of Sobolenko on the Internet with Lukashenko after he arrested political opponents and used the army and police to quell protests.
Following these press conferences, Sabalenka announced that she no longer felt “safe” in front of the media, and after the next two matches, she decided to speak only with a WTA staff member. The WTA and the tournament organizers have backed her decision, dropping the fines and threats of more severe penalties they imposed on Naomi Osaka for doing the same thing at the French Open two years ago.
“I felt really disrespectful,” Sobolenko said Tuesday of the first two tense press conferences.
While Sobolenko fought off the court, Svitolina became the hero of the tournament. She spent much of the past year on maternity leave raising money for relief efforts in Ukraine, and she wowed the crowd by fighting in her first four matches at her first Grand Slam since the birth of her daughter. Local fans have a special sympathy for Svitolina, who is married to French tennis player Gael Monfils, who was on the court for all her matches.
Her victories marked the beginning of a confrontation with Sobolenko, which immediately seemed like something more than a match between two tennis players.
It was Ukraine vs. Belarus, the favorite player in the sport against a 25-year-old that fans still recognize. One became a leading figure in popular culture by helping the military; the other did not make it clear what her loyalty was.
Under pressure from a Ukrainian journalist, Sobolenko said she did not support the war — “No normal person would ever support this war,” she said — but she did not withdraw her support for Lukashenka.
In terms of tennis, it was a duel between Svitolina the retriever and arguably the strongest player in women’s football, Sobolenko, and it quickly became clear that unless Sobolenko’s former erratic personality came to light, it would not be Svitolina’s day. Sobolenko held steady, and Svitolina dropped out. Sobolenko will face Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic in the semi-finals on Thursday.
This was followed by an awkward standoff at the end and even some hooting for Svitolina’s actions as she packed her bag while Sabalenko waited by the net and as she left the court.
“She didn’t deserve all this,” Sobolenko said of the howl.
Svitolina said that it would be better for everyone if the WTA and tournament organizers made it clear to players from Russia and Belarus that there would be no handshakes while the war was going on. She also said that one player should not take advantage of the potential stress of talking to the media while everyone else should sit in front of the microphone and answer any questions that come up.
“I ran into difficulties,” Svitolina said. “I’m not running away. I have a strong position and I’m open about it.” She said she would not try to curry favor with the public, “betraying my strong faith and the strongest position for my country.”
When Sobolenko’s turn came, she once again declared her disagreement with the war, and under pressure from a journalist from Poland, she tried to slightly increase the distance between herself and Lukashenka. The Ukrainian journalist who interrogated her earlier does not cover the second week of the tournament.
“I don’t support the war, that is, I don’t support Lukashenka right now,” Sabalenka said.
She revealed that she lost sleep due to her decision to skip previous press conferences and said that she felt bad about it and that she plans not to miss any more, but does not regret this decision.
“I don’t want to get involved in any politics,” she said. “I just want to be a tennis player.”
At the moment, given the possible date for the final against Iga Swiatek of Poland, who wears a Ukrainian flag pin during the game, this may not be possible.