LONDON, July 1 — Belarus tennis star Aryna Sabalenka laid down the law from the outset at Wimbledon today, insisting she will not get dragged back into 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.
“I only have hope that they will support me as they did in the last years - hopefully. That’s it.”
Sabalenka made the semi-finals 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. — AFP