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Sabalenka Skips French Open News Conference Citing Her Mental Health

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Aryna Sabalenka’s day began with a routine demolition of Kamilla Rakhimova of Russia that propelled the world’s second-ranked player, who’s from Belarus, into the second week of the French Open as expected.

But then Sabalenka put herself, the tournament and tennis over again at the middle of the controversy over sports and the war in Ukraine by refusing to attend the mandatory post-match news conference. She said she had felt unsafe during a previous news conference this week when a journalist from Ukraine asked Sabalenka about her support of President Alexandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, which has supported Russia’s war against Ukraine.

“On Wednesday I didn’t feel protected in press conference,” Sabalenka was quoted as saying in the beginning of a transcript of her statements following her 6-2, 6-2 win over Rakhimova. “I should have the ability to feel protected once I do interviews with the journalists after my matches. For my very own mental health and well-being, I even have decided to take myself out of this case today, and the tournament has supported me on this decision.”

Cédric Laurent, a spokesman for the French tennis federation, the F.F.T., which organizes this Grand Slam tournament, one which has been dominated by geopolitics from the beginning, said federation officials learned after Sabalenka’s match that she wouldn’t take part in the news conference.

French Open officials approved Sabalenka’s decision for Friday’s match but said no decision had yet been made about her news conferences through the remainder of the tournament.

Laurent said a “pool” had been chosen to interview Sabalenka, but he declined to specify who was within the pool or in the event that they were members of the independent news media or worked for the tournament or the ladies’s tennis tour, the WTA.

An individual with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to talk on the matter said that just one person — a WTA worker — asked questions within the pool interview.

An individual accustomed to the WTA’s actions who was also not authorized to talk on the matter said the organization supported Sabalenka’s desire to not take part in the news conference and the style during which her statements were delivered.

Sabalenka’s representatives at IMG, the sports and entertainment firm that may be a unit of Endeavor, didn’t reply to requests for comment.

The choice on Sabalenka comes two years after a confrontation with Naomi Osaka over attendance at news conferences led her to drop out of the French Open. Osaka announced on social media before the beginning of the tournament that she wouldn’t take part in the news conferences with a purpose to protect her mental health and would pay whatever fines she received.

After Osaka skipped the news conference following her opening-round win, she was fined $15,000 by the tournament referee, and the leaders of the 4 Grand Slam competitions — the Australian, French and U.S. Opens, and Wimbledon — threatened that she may very well be expelled from the French Open and face harsher penalties if she wouldn’t fulfill her media obligations.

Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion and certainly one of the world’s top-ranked players on the time, pulled out the following day, announcing for the primary time that she had been battling depression and planned to take a break from tennis. She returned seven weeks later, but stepped away over again in the autumn of 2021. She battled injuries for much of 2022, and is now pregnant together with her first child, though she has said she intends to return after the birth.

In Sabalenka’s case, the choice got here following two tense exchanges with Daria Meshcheriakova, a part-time journalist from Ukraine who works for Tribuna, a sports publication based within the country.

Throughout the first exchange Meshcheriakova asked Sabalenka what her message to the world was concerning the war and why she had claimed that Ukrainian players “hate” her. Sabalenka denied having said that after which spoke as openly as she ever had regarding the war.

“No person on this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. No person,” said Sabalenka, who lives in Miami. “How can we support the war? No person, normal people won’t ever support it.”

Three days later, after Sabalenka’s second-round match, Meshcheriakova challenged her a few letter she supposedly signed in 2020 in support of Lukashenko, “in times when he was torturing and beating up protesters on the street,” and about having participated in a Latest Yr’s celebration with him.

The letter that Sabalenka supposedly signed has not been made public, and her Latest Yr’s celebration with the Belarusian president has not been independently verified, though there are various pictures of Sabalenka and Lukashenko together. In an interview Friday, Meshcheriakova, who left Kyiv for the Netherlands 10 days after the war began when missiles landed near her apartment and whose parents still live in Russia-occupied Luhansk, said she had learned of the letter and the Latest Yr’s celebration from distinguished Belarusian journalists who had been forced to go away the country.

“It’s true,” Meshcheriakova said, “and also you saw how she responded.”

Sabalenka said she had no comments about either query, then began to reply Meshcheriakova’s next query: “So that you mainly support every part because you can’t speak up? You’re not a small person, Aryna.”

But Sabalenka quickly cut herself off when a moderator stated that Sabalenka had made it clear she wouldn’t comment further.

“It’s all clear to us,” Meshcheriakova said to conclude the exchange.

Elina Svitolina, who’s a type of unofficial leader of the Ukrainian members of the tour, said they simply desired to hear from players representing Russia and Belarus that they consider their countries should end the war.

“I believe just about all Ukrainians would love to listen to that from their side,” Svitolina said after her three-set win over Anna Blinkova of Russia.

Like the opposite Ukrainian players, Svitolina didn’t shake Blinkova’s hand after the match.

“Are you able to imagine the guy or a lady who’s without delay in a front line, you realize, taking a look at me and I’m, like, acting like nothing is going on,” Svitolina said. “I’m representing my country. I even have a voice.”

Sabalenka is scheduled to play Sloane Stephens of america on Sunday within the fourth round. It’s not yet clear whether she is going to face reporters after the match.

Meshcheriakova, who works as a political analyst along with covering sports, said she was returning to her day job after Saturday. She said she had been using vacation time to report on the tournament and was paying her own expenses.

In Osaka’s case, tournament officials said that not requiring Osaka to attend news conferences could give her an unfair advantage over other players.

Stephens, who’s a member of the WTA Players’ Council, said Friday that she supported Sabalenka’s decision to not attend her news conference, and that each player had a right to feel protected performing her media obligations.

“Everyone needs to be ok with themselves and what they’re doing,” Stephens said. “If she doesn’t feel protected, then she doesn’t must be there. That’s the top of that.”

Meshcheriakova said she had spoken together with her parents earlier within the day. Her mother, she said, had been watching the Russian media coverage of the story, during which she was described using the Russian words for a Black cross-dresser. She implored her daughter to stop covering the tournament and to go away immediately.

“After all I told her I wouldn’t,” Meshcheriakova said. “I’m a journalist.”

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