Aryna Sabalenka could finish French Open as world number one but accepts she’s up against a player she ‘hates’
The Belarusian won her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and has maintained the momentum by winning the Madrid Open earlier this month and closing the gap on Iga Swiatek at the top of the rankings.
Winning a second consecutive Major championship would secure Sabalenka top spot for the first time, but first there is an awkward encounter with Marta Kostyuk.
Kostyuk was the most outspoken Ukrainian player to express the sport’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of her homeland and believes that Russian and Belarusian players should be ready to condemn their nations’ actions.
She refuses to shake hands with players from both countries at the end of games, but Sabalenka stressed that it wouldn’t bother her, saying: “I can kind of understand her.
“I can imagine that if you shake hands with the Russians and Belarusians, you will receive so many messages from your home country. At the same time, I believe that sport should not be part of politics.
“We’re just athletes. If they’re comfortable without shaking hands, I’m fine with that.
“I don’t want to waste my energy on things like that. Which does not concern me. So if she hates me, fine. I can not do anything about that.
“There will be people who love me, there will be people who hate me. If she hates me, I don’t feel the same way about her.”
Sabalenka has arguably won the two best matches of the season, beating Elena Rybakina in the Australian Open final and Swiatek, triumphing in Madrid.
Combined, Sabalenka, Swiatek and Rybakina have won seven of the season’s biggest titles so far and hold all four Slam trophies, burying the post-Serena Williams narrative of instability at the top of women’s football.
It would be a big surprise if the coupe winner Suzanne Lenglen wasn’t from that trio and Swiatek, who rode to her second Roland Garros title last year, said: “Certainly it’s a completely different situation than last Year.
“It’s nice to always have someone watching you. We’ve played so many games against each other that we know our games tactically pretty well. But sometimes we have to come up with other solutions, which is pretty exciting because I’ve never had that in my career.
“I think that’s what the big three (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic) definitely had to do when they played 30 or even more games against each other.
“So I’m excited to learn something new. And besides, we all work very hard to play better and better. That is definitely an additional motivation.”
Sabalenka will try to keep thoughts of number one out of her mind and enjoys the challenge of the three-way battle.
“I think it’s good for tennis when the top players consistently perform well,” she said. “I think it pushes everyone to the next level and pushes everyone to do better and play better.
“That’s how Iga pushed me last season. I think it’s good for people to watch games like this and to see top players get to the final stages of the tournament.”
Swiatek traveled to Paris injured after picking up a hamstring problem in her encounter with Rybakina in Rome last week but insisted she will be fit to face Cristina Bucsa in the first round.
“Thankfully nothing serious happened so I had a few days off,” she said. “I’m still recovering from the hamstring injury but I’ll be fit for my first round. That is the most important thing for me.”