World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, who is from Belarus, said she struggled to understand the “hate” she encountered in the locker room amid strained relations between some players following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Belarus has been a staging area for the invasion, which Russia calls a “special operation.” Players from Russia and Belarus are banned from competing on the WTA and ATP tours under their flags, but can compete as individual athletes without national affiliation.
Last year, Wimbledon organizers banned players from the two countries from competing in the grass-court event. Among those not eligible to participate were Sabalenka, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2021, and Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, who at the time was the men’s world No. 1.
“It was really tough for me because I’ve never faced that much hate in the locker room,” Sabalenka, speaking Tuesday ahead of the Miami Open, said of the ongoing geopolitical strain. “There are a lot of haters on Instagram when you’re losing matches, but in the locker room I’ve never faced that.
“It was really tough to understand that there’s so many people who hate me for no reason. I did nothing.”
Sabalenka said she had been having “weird conversations” with members of some players’ teams in the last year.
“It was really tough but now it’s getting better,” she said.
Sabalenka, who won the Australian Open in January, lost to Elena Rybakina in the final of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells on Sunday.
Earlier in the tournament, Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko withdrew from her third-round match with Sabalenka due to what she said was a panic attack triggered by a conversation she had with WTA CEO Steve Simon about tennis’ response to Russia’s invasion
World No. 1 Iga Swiatek has called for more support to be offered to Ukrainian players, saying the tennis leadership was not doing enough, but two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus said that was not the case.
“There are certain players that have different feelings and behaviors. Overall, I don’t necessarily share the same opinion as Iga does,” Azarenka said Tuesday. “I’d encourage her to look at the things that have been done before she makes comments. As a player council member I’m happy to provide the facts. That would be a more appropriate way to have that conversation.”
Information from Reuters was included in this report.