'Emotional' victory: Aryna Sabalenka reacts after winning against Marta Kostyuk
Paris (AFP) - Aryna Sabalenka won a politically-charged French Open duel against Marta Kostyuk on Sunday as jeers and boos rained down on the defeated Ukrainian who refused to shake hands with her Belarusian opponent.
World number two and Australian Open champion Sabalenka swept 10 of the last 12 games to win 6-3, 6-2 as she kick-started her push to reach the second week in Paris for the first time.
Kostyuk honoured her pledge not to shake hands with Sabalenka in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarus is a key military ally of Moscow.
The 20-year-old Kostyuk, who has been a vociferous critic of the decision to allow Russian and Belarusian players to keep competing on tour since the invasion of her country, questioned the crowd’s motives in booing her stance.
“I want to see people react to it in 10 years when the war is over. I think they will not feel really nice about what they did,” she said.
“I didn’t expect it. People should be honestly embarrassed.”
Kostyuk, ranked at 39 in the world, famously refused to shake hands with Sabalenka’s Belarusian compatriot and former world number one Victoria Azarenka at the US Open last year. She opted instead for a cursory touch of racquets at the net.
“It was a very tough match, tough emotionally. I didn’t know if the booing was against me but thank you so much for your support, it’s really important,” said Sabalenka who apologised for her exaggerated, theatrical bow to the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd.
Sabalenka had admitted on the eve of the tournament that she could accept if Kostyuk had feelings of “hate” towards her.
Tough times: Marta Kostyuk reacts after losing against Aryna Sabalenka
“I never said publicly nor privately nor to anyone that I hate Aryna Sabalenka or any of the players. I just don’t respect her because of her position in this situation,” added Kostyuk, who wants Russian and Belarusian players to individually denounce the war which has raged on since February last year.
- ‘Shocking’ -
Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who blew a two-sets lead to lose the 2021 final to Novak Djokovic, made the second round with a 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (9⁄7) win over 455th-ranked Czech player, Jiri Vesely.
Vesely, who had previously only played in two second-tier Challenger events this year, squandered four set points which would have forced a deciding set.
“I felt like he started feeling the pressure a little bit more. His serves were not as accurate towards the end, which of course I’m happy with because it gave me the chance to start a few rallies and finally play more than three or four shots. That was it,” said Tsitsipas.
Greek eighth seed Maria Sakkari, a semi-finalist in 2021, fell at the first hurdle, losing 7-6 (7⁄5), 7-5 to Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic.
Muchova, the world number 43, had also defeated Sakkari in the second round last year and now has four successive wins over top 10 opponents at the Grand Slams.
Britain’s Dan Evans was the highest seed to fall in early action in the men’s draw, losing 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to Australian wild card Thanasi Kokkinakis.
“It’s shocking how I played today,” said Evans.
Portugal’s 80th-ranked Nuno Borges withstood 38 aces and 85 winners from John Isner to defeat the veteran American 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7⁄3), 4-6, 7-6 (11⁄9), claiming victory on a sixth match point after four hours on court.
France’s Alize Cornet was another veteran to lose on opening day, going down 6-3, 6-4 to Camila Giorgi of Italy.
Cornet was playing in her 19th Roland Garros and 65th consecutive Grand Slam.
Later Sunday Andrey Rublev, the seventh seed and Monte Carlo champion in April, begins against Laslo Djere of Serbia.
Head and heart: Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates his win over Jiri Vesely
Rublev has made the quarter-finals in Paris on two occasions while 57th-ranked Djere has twice made the third round.
Women’s third seed Jessica Pegula, a quarter-finalist in 2022, tackles American compatriot Danielle Collins.
- New era -
This year sees a new era at the French Open where for the first time since 2004 Rafael Nadal will not grace the famous red clay.
Injured Nadal, the 14-time champion, sits out the 2023 edition of a tournament where he has lost just three of 115 matches.
In his absence, Djokovic, a two-time winner, and the man responsible for two of Nadal’s three losses, will look to edge ahead of the Spaniard with a record-setting 23rd major.
However, he faces serious threat from Carlos Alcaraz, the world number one aiming to add a Roland Garros title to his US Open triumph.
Alcaraz and Djokovic begin their campaigns on Monday.