Belarus-born Aryna Sabalenka admitted that tensions in WTA tournament locker rooms are running hot over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
With Wimbledon and the Olympics close to announcing that Russian and East bloc allied Belarus players can compete, feelings between Ukrainian players and their fellow Slavs are never far from the boiling point.
Sabalenka, seeded second, reached the Indian Wells Masters final on Friday in California 6-2, 6-2 over Iga Swiatek; she will play Moscow-born Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina – who holds a Kazakh passport of convenience – in Sunday’s final.
This week in California, Ukrainian player Lesia Tsurenko withdrew rather than face Sabalenka on court, claiming a panic attack.
Sabalenka tried to play down a fraught situation which has ratcheted up during the course of the Russian invasion which kicked off in February, 2022.
“Nobody can control the emotions of others; I think WTA are doing their best to kind of control it,” she said.
“Of course it’s a lot of tension between us. I still have this belief that I did nothing bad to Ukraines; not me, not Russian athletes, not Belarusian athletes, not
one of us did something bad.
“Even some (ATP player Daniil Medvedev, Andry Rublev) of us are like helping (but not publicly).
“What else I can say? I think WTA are doing a really great job to support both sides.”
That assertion backs up the hard line taken in talks with Ukrainian players by WTA boss Steve Simon, who said this week that Russian and Balarus competitors should be allowed to play Wimbledon after being banned by the UK government last summer.
The hardline American also reportedly told a tearful Tsurenko in a conversation to calm down and moderate her criticism of the war situation and the invasion of her homeland.
World No. 2 Sabalenka is happy to play the victim’s card herself.
“I went through so many bad (tennis) things, and unfortunately, I’m not able to say that because who’s gonna believe a Belarusian girl.
“The more I’m talking, the better I just stop. I think Tsurenko withdrew (for much more than a panic attack) or a political situation – I think there is something more.
“I had really tough situation last year with her coach, the way he acted to me.
“It’s nothing to do with WTA. Nobody of us has control in this situation. All of us are just trying to keep the calmest in the locker room and keep understanding that this is not our fault.
“All of us understand Ukrainians, and we really feel bad for them, that’s it.”