On court, Aryna Sabalenka is imperial, pushing back her opponents one by one until reaching the semifinals she will play, Thursday, June 8, against the Czech Karolina Muchova. Outside, however, Belarus is systematically caught up in the war in Ukraine, while she would prefer to focus on tennis and we forget her past signs of support for the authoritarian leader of her country Alexander Lukashenko, ally of Vladimir Putin.

After twice dodging the post-match press conference, citing her "mental health", the Belarusian showed up to everyone's surprise on Tuesday, June 6, in the wake of her quarter-final victory against the Ukrainian Elena Svitolina.

"I only want to be a tennis player"

"I'm only 25. If I wanted to be a politician, I wouldn't be here. I don't want to get caught up in politics. I just want to be a tennis player," she said, in a millimetre response, saying she had not "felt safe" earlier at a press conference.

It must be said that the young woman was not spared. In a tense exchange after his successful second round against his compatriot Iryna Shymanovich, a Ukrainian journalist asked him to justify his links with Alexander Lukashenko, whose regime is carrying out a relentless crackdown on critical voices in his country and supports Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. The previous round, she had to comment on the refusal to shake hands with her opponent of the day, Marta Kostyuk, another Ukrainian. The latter had indicated "not respecting [it]", accusing it of not taking a clear position against the war in Ukraine.

In this long game where the Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians have been passing the ball back to each other for months, the public of Roland-Garros has adopted a paradoxical attitude. Particularly noisy this year, French fans push Ukrainian players when they face Russians and Belarusians but boo them when these same Ukrainian women refuse to shake hands with their opponent at the end of the match.

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"There are two realities that confront each other: that of sport, with its values of fair play and tolerance, and that of war. The public seems to be sensitive to both," says Lukas Aubin, director of research at Iris, author of the book "Geopolitics of Russia", published by La Découverte.

At the end of her quarter-final, Aryna Sabalenka cultivated ambiguity by going very conspicuously to the net to wait for her opponent's handshake, which never came. An "instinct" defended itself, rejecting the idea of a trap set for Elina Svitolina, who never makes a departure from her rule, even in front of the Russian Daria Kasatkina whom she respects for her radical stance against the policy of her country of origin.

"I don't know why she was waiting for me. In all my press conferences I express my position very clearly," reacted the one who refuses to shake hands with some of her opponents out of respect for her compatriots "who are on the front line at the moment, who would [watch me] do as if nothing had happened."

Svitolina: "I don't know what she (Sabalenka) was waiting for (at the net). My position is very clear on the handshakes. I also expected to be whistled. No surprises. By staying at the net, did it "aggravate" the thing? I believe, unfortunately." https://t.co/ySGPeOoxwy

— Quentin Moynet (@QuentinMoynet) June 6, 2023

She was not surprised by the whistles of the audience: "I'm not trying to escape, I have my strong position. I am very clear about that. I will not try to win the public's appreciation by betraying my own strong convictions and strong position in favor of my country."

A long history of support for Loukachenko

Quite the opposite of Sabalenka, which is paying for its links, once displayed, with Alexander Lukashenko. According to the state agency Belta, she had met him during a tête-à-tête organized at the request of the player.

In 2019, in an interview with the independent media Tut.by - closed since the 2020 demonstrations against the government, and two of whose leaders were recently sentenced to twelve years in prison - she paid tribute to him: "Obviously, it's good to be born in a country where the president supports sport like no one else and is ready to help in difficult times."

Then, on December 31, 2020, after a year marked by the crushing of pro-democracy protests in Belarus, Sabalenka participated, in Minsk, in a toast with Lukashenko for the New Year, along with other figures supporting the regime. At the same time, she signed an open letter, like 3,000 other Belarusian sportsmen, against the creation of a "Union of Free Sportsmen of Belarus" supporting the political opposition.

The Belarusian president regularly praises his performances. Earlier this year, he toasted in her honor after winning the Australian Open. At the end of March, he announced that he would "talk with her" after his defeat at the WTA 1000 in Miami. An ostentatious support that becomes embarrassing for Sabalenka: "I'm pretty sure it doesn't help" to make me popular, she said in April in Stuttgart. "I don't know what to say because he can comment on my matches, he can comment what he wants."

Sabalenka: "I don't support the war so I don't support Lukashenko right now."

— Quentin Moynet (@QuentinMoynet) June 6, 2023

For her return to the press conference at Roland-Garros, she had prepared for this thorny question of links with the master of Belarus: "We played a lot of Fed Cup matches and he was at our matches. He took pictures with us after the meetings. Nothing bad was happening at that moment." Then, in response to another question, she added: "I don't support the war, which means I don't support Lukashenko right now."

"The Coubertin trap"

"We must be aware that these players are potentially in danger if they start speaking out against the regime, especially in Belarus where the Lukashenko regime puts a lot of emphasis on sport and uses it as a platform," notes Lukas Aubin. "It is very difficult to take a stand against these regimes. Those who usually do not come back to the country."

To avoid these geopolitical headaches, international bodies maintain the myth of sports apoliticism: "The discourse of international sports bodies is hypocritical, it is based on an old hiatus, which is called the De Coubertin trap when he creates the games. He says they need to be separated from politics. But he himself has politicized them to excess," denounces Lukas Aubin.

Unlike many other sports, the WTA and ATP, which govern women's and men's tennis respectively, have been the least opinionated bodies. They resisted calls to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions, asking them to compete as "neutrals", without flags or anthems.

At Roland-Garros, this translates into concrete action: when players appear on the courts, there is no mention of their nationality, just like in the daily newspaper of the competition. On the bulletin boards, their names appear without being followed by the usual three letters indicating the country of origin. A vexation that gives the impression to Aryna Sabalenka to "come from nowhere".

Still, the model seduces the IOC for the Olympic Games. Defending his intention to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in international competitions, the president of the body, Thomas Bach, caused astonishment by citing tennis as an example of cohabitation between the three belligerents of the war raging in Eastern Europe.

"There is a form of hypocrisy in putting tennis forward, while we see that at each confrontation between Ukrainian athletes and Russian or Belarusian, there are tensions, verbal outings on both sides, and excessive politicization," recalls Lukas Aubin. "The IOC is looking for a solution, but there are no good ones at the moment."

In the meantime, Aryna Sabalenka continues on her way to Roland Garros, a tournament she has never won. In the final, she could face the current number 1, the Polish Iga Swiatek, and therefore potentially take her place in case of final victory. A hypothetical duel between the desire to separate politics and tennis and that of linking them, Iga Swiatek having repeatedly expressed himself against this war that is taking place on the border of his country.

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