Aryna Sabalenka was one point away from reaching her first French Open final. Facing the unseeded Karolina Muchova in the semifinals Thursday, she had battled back after losing the first set in a tiebreak, and now held a commanding lead at 5-2 in the decider.
The Roland Garros final looked all but inevitable. As if it would be the latest milestone in a year full of them.
But 18 minutes later, Muchova had not only saved match point, but had come back to stun Sabalenka, winning 20 of the final 24 points. As Muchova threw her hands in the air in celebration, the Philippe-Chatrier crowd roared and stood in ovation for her heroics in a match that had gone over three hours. The dejected Sabalenka quickly found her way off the court.
Until Thursday, Sabalenka had yet to drop a set at Roland Garros, nor lose a Grand Slam match, this year. It had been a monumental season for the 25-year-old. She opened the year with the title at Adelaide and then had her breakthrough moment in Melbourne by winning the Australian Open. She has since reached the world No. 2 ranking, nabbed another trophy at Madrid and played in the finals at Indian Wells and Stuttgart.
No woman on tour has earned more titles, or played in more finals, this season. For much of the French Open, until the final moments of the semifinal, Sabalenka appeared to be on a collision course with world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, the two potentially meeting in the final with a trophy and the No. 1 ranking on the line.
Instead, the loss to Muchova provided a much different, and far more anticlimactic, finish to Sabalenka’s tumultuous stay in Paris.
Off the court, the Belarus native has been peppered with questions from reporters about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, her country’s involvement in the war, and her relationship with Belarus’ controversial president Aleksandr Lukashenko. After a heated exchange following her second-round win, Sabalenka skipped her next two postmatch news conferences. “For my own mental health and well-being, I have decided to take myself out of this situation today, and the tournament has supported me in this decision,” she said last Friday.
Instead of her stellar play, it was Sabalenka’s apprehension to speak that dominated coverage of her French Open run. She didn’t blame the added attention for her loss Thursday, but admitted it had taken a toll on her.
“I felt bad emotionally after one press conference,” Sabalenka said. “As I said, I couldn’t sleep. But the only thing I can do well in this life is play tennis, so I try to focus on things I could control and I could do …
“It’s been a great couple of weeks with some challenges, emotional challenges, but I think I get through it. I don’t know. I think I’ll be stronger.”
Many tennis fans first saw Sabalenka when she led the Belarus team to its first-ever Fed Cup (now known as the Billie Jean King Cup) final in 2017. She was a relative unknown, ranked outside of the top 100, and she needed to fill the massive void of Victoria Azarenka’s absence.
She stepped up to the challenge in front of a hometown crowd in Minsk with a three-set victory on the second day of competition that clinched the win against Switzerland. Afterward, the teenager was hoisted into the air by her teammates. Lukashenko publicly praised Sabalenka and the team for the “historic achievement.”
She went on to win her first WTA title in 2018, and had her first one-on-one meeting with Lukashenko in November of that year. According to Belta, a Belarus state-owned news agency, Lukashenko congratulated her for her progress but also told her she needed to work on her consistency.
Sabalenka reached the top 10 the following season and won the US Open doubles title with Elise Mertens. Her star continued to grow, at home and abroad. In 2020, around the same time the tennis season resumed after its suspension due to the global pandemic, protests began in Belarus following the heavily disputed presidential election. Thousands were arrested for their participation in such protests, and human rights violations were reported.
According to the AFP, Sabalenka rang in the New Year entering 2021 at a celebration with Lukashenko in Minsk.
By the time the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, with Belarus’ assistance, in February 2022, Sabalenka was the No. 2-ranked player in the world. She spoke about the conflict ahead of Indian Wells the following month.
“I feel really sad and really bad about the Ukrainian citizens who lost their homes during the war,” Sabalenka said. “I’m really worried about it but unfortunately it is not under my control. I just hope for peace.”
A year later, Russian and Belarusian players are competing under a neutral flag, but Sabalenka’s home country still claimed her victory in Melbourne as its own. Lukashenko even praised her after her Australian Open triumph in a speech. “I’m pretty sure that it’s not helping,” Sabalenka said in April when asked if his comments helped her status in the locker room with her Ukrainian peers.
In Paris, the first question about the war came 6½ minutes into Sabalenka’s French Open media day news conference. A reporter asked about her first-round opponent, Marta Kostyuk, a Ukrainian, and Kostyuk’s decision to not shake hands with Russian or Belarusian players, like most of the Ukrainians on tour.
“I kind of can understand them,” Sabalenka said. “I imagine [if] they’re going to shake hands with Russians and Belarusians, and then they’re going to get so many messages from their home countries. So I kind of understand why they are not doing it. At the same time, I feel like sports shouldn’t be in politics. Like we’re just athletes.”
After Sabalenka’s straight-sets win over Kostyuk in the first round, she was questioned by Daria Meshcheriakova, a Ukrainian journalist, at her news conference. The exchange resulted in Sabalenka’s strongest condemnation of the war so far.
Sabalenka addresses press after defeating Kostyuk in a tense R.1 encounter.#RolandGarros pic.twitter.com/AM4LrgUmSX
— TENNIS (@Tennis) May 28, 2023
“Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody,” Sabalenka said. “How can we support the war? Nobody, normal people will never support it.”
Kostyuk responded later that day in her own news conference, “She never says that she personally doesn’t support this war. … I feel like you should ask these players who [they want to win the war] because if you ask this question, I’m not so sure these people will say that they want Ukraine to win.”
On Wednesday, three days later, after another straight-sets victory, this time over Iryna Shymanovich in the second round, Sabalenka encountered Meshcheriakova again during her news conference. Sabalenka was asked about a letter she reportedly signed in support of Lukashenko in 2020 and whether she would say she personally wanted the war to end. She refused to answer.
Then Sabalenka opted out of the news conferences following her third- and fourth-round victories. She spoke exclusively to the WTA’s editorial member after, with transcripts of the conversations made available to the media. There were no questions pertaining to the war in either.
“I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches,” Sabalenka said in the third-round interview with the WTA.
On Tuesday, nearly a week after she had done her last news conference, Sabalenka played Ukrainian Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals. Sabalenka took control of the tightly contested match in the ninth game of the first set. Her power and groundstrokes were ultimately too much for Svitolina, and Sabalenka took the match in 96 minutes.
Despite the dominant performance against a capable opponent, her play remained a secondary conversation. It was expected that there would be no handshake at the net after the match. But in a moment that has been dissected on social media, Sabalenka stood and leaned over the net, as if waiting for Svitolina. When Svitolina ignored her and walked to shake the chair umpire’s hand instead, the crowd booed loudly. While the fan reaction was the same as it has been throughout the tournament, Svitolina said Sabalenka’s posturing inflamed the situation.
“It just was an instinct like I always do after all my matches,” Sabalenka later explained.
On Thursday, there was a ticket to the final on the line, and the chance for Sabalenka to get one step closer to her childhood dream of acquiring the world No. 1 ranking — something she would have done by winning the title, or if Swiatek lost in the semifinals. But Sabalenka said she didn’t feel extra pressure entering the match. She credited Muchova for raising her level down the stretch.
“She kind of stepped in and started playing a little bit more aggressive, and I kind of, yeah, lost my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Yeah, I wasn’t there.”
After the quarterfinals, Sabalenka had generated headlines with her response to a question about her support for Lukashenko. “It’s a tough question,” she said. “I mean, I don’t support war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko right now.”
On Thursday after the semifinals, during the last question of her final news conference in Paris, Sabalenka was asked again about that statement and if she felt safe having said it.
“I don’t want to talk about politics today,” she said. “I made all my statements. You have it. … Let’s just talk about tennis. Give me some rest, please, from politics.”
She laughed. And, just like that, her news conference, and her run in Paris, was over.