By Shrivathsa Sridhar
PARIS (Reuters) – World number two Aryna Sabalenka reached the French Open semi-finals on Tuesday by beating Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, who accused the Belarusian of fanning the flames of controversy for waiting at the net for a handshake she knew would never come.
Novak Djokovic, who put his own political drama in the rear-view mirror last week, continued his bid for a men’s record 23rd Grand Slam title by shaking off a first-set blip to beat Russian 11th seed Karen Khachanov 4-6 7-6(0) 6-2 6-4.
“He was the better player for most of the first two sets, I was struggling to find rhythm, I came into this a bit sluggish,” twice Roland Garros champion Djokovic said.
“Then I played a perfect tiebreak and from that moment on I played a couple of levels higher.”
Czech Karolina Muchova’s game was also a few notches higher than former runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, as she sealed a 7-5 6-2 win to reach the semi-finals for the first time.
She will meet Sabalenka for a place in the final.
Svitolina had said she would not shake hands with players from Russia or Belarus after Moscow’s invasion of her country last year, for which Belarus is a key staging area.
“I don’t know, to be fair, what she was waiting for, because my statements were clear about the handshake,” said Svitolina, who was booed by the French Open crowd for walking to her bench while Sabalenka waited at the net after winning 6-4 6-4.
‘I DON’T SUPPORT THE WAR’
Having skipped two press conferences at Roland Garros after being grilled by the media about her personal stance on the war, Sabalenka finally addressed reporters again.
“I don’t want my country to be in any conflict, I don’t support the war,” second seed Sabalenka said.
“I don’t support war, meaning I don’t support (Belarus President) Alexander Lukashenko right now.”
Sabalenka, who had skipped the earlier press conferences citing mental health reasons and saying that she did not feel safe after being repeatedly questioned about the war, said she did not regret skipping her media duties.
“I really felt bad not coming here. I couldn’t sleep. Like all those bad feelings were in my head,” Sabalenka said.
“I don’t regret the decisions. I felt really disrespected and felt really bad. I mean, (at a) Grand Slam, it’s enough pressure to handle, and I tried to focus on myself, on my game.
“I really hope you guys will understand me, my feelings. You know I really respect all of you and I’m always open. You can ask whatever you want. You will get all the information.
“But in the last press conference, I felt like my press conference became a political TV show, and I’m not (an) expert in politics. I’m just a tennis player.”
World number one Carlos Alcaraz meets fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the night session.
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar, Julien Pretot and Karolos Grohmann in Paris; Editing by Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis)
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