Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka has described the difficulties she’s encountered in tennis locker rooms over the past year due to her nationality. Belarus has been a key ally to Russia during its 13-month invasion of Ukraine, which has created tensions across the sport spectrum.
After finishing as runner-up to Russia-born Elena Rybakina (representing Kazakhstan) at Indian Wells on Sunday, Minsk native Sabalenka opened up on the differing reactions she’s received from certain athletes. She said she’s “still talking to some of the Ukrainians,” but there are those whom she claimed have been “really aggressive against us.”
This is despite the fact—as Sabalenka put it—she “did nothing bad to them” and had no direct hand in her country’s campaign against Ukraine. Although accustomed to facing criticism online, it was a new experience to face such scrutiny from her peers.
“It was really, really tough for me because I’ve never faced that much hate in the locker room,” said the world No. 2. “Of course, there are a lot of haters on Instagram when you’re losing the matches, but like, in the locker room, I’ve never faced that.
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“It was really tough for me to understand that there’s so many people who really hate me for no reason, like no reason. I mean, like I did nothing.”
The United Nations has verified a little more than 8,300 deaths among Ukrainian civilians since Russia’s ‘special military operation’ began on February 24, 2022. That’s in addition to almost 14,000 injuries among civilians, while millions of Ukrainians have been displaced and become refugees as a result of the invasion.
Even without having a direct hand in the attacks, the words and actions of big sports stars can have a dramatic impact in influencing social perceptions around major issues, which can in turn cause harm. Novak Djokovic encountered scrutiny at the Australian Open in January after the Serb’s father, Srdjan, took photos in front of a Russian flag before declaring: “Long live Russia.”
Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko recently withdrew from Indian Wells after the Ukrainian said a disappointing chat, which she claimed involved discussion about the war, with WTA chief Steve Simon triggered a ‘panic attack’.
World No. 1 Iga Swiatek was sympathetic to Tsurenko’s plight and has said Ukrainians need more support during an immensely difficult period. For all her own struggles behind the scenes, however, Sabalenka went on to say things are improving.
“It was really tough but now it’s getting better,” added the 24-year-old. “I had some, not like fights, but I had some weird conversations with, not the girls, but with members of their team. It was really… it was tough. It was [a] tough period. But now it’s getting better.”