Aryna Sabalenka kept her cool to win a politically charged French Open duel against Marta Kostyuk on Sunday as the taunts rained down after the defeated Ukrainian refused to shake hands with her Belarusian opponent.
World number two and Australian Open champion Sabalenka swept 10 of the last 12 to win 6-3, 6-2 as she launched her push to reach week two in Paris for the first time.
Kostyuk honored his promise not to shake hands with Sabalenka in protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Belarus is a key military ally of Moscow.
“It was a very tough game, emotionally tough. I didn’t know if the boos were against me but thank you very much for your support, it’s really important,” said Sabalenka who gave a theatrical bow to the sparse audience of the Court Philippe Chatrier. .
Kostyuk, 20, refused to shake hands with fellow Belarusian Sabalenka and former world number one Victoria Azarenka at the US Open last year.
Instead, she opted for a superficial touch of racquets at net.
Kostyuk, 39th in the standings, strongly criticized the decision to allow Russian and Belarus players to continue competing on tour since her country was invaded.
“If she hates me, fine. I can’t do anything about it,” Sabalenka, 25, said on the eve of the game.
“About the shaking ban, I can kind of understand them. I imagine if they go and shake hands with Russians and Belarusians, they’ll get so many messages from their home country.”
“If they feel good without shaking hands, I’m happy about that.”
This year sees a new era at Roland-Garros where, for the first time since 2004, Rafael Nadal will not tread the famous red clay.
Injured, Nadal, 14 times champion, is absent from the 2023 edition of a tournament where he has lost only three of 115 matches.
In his absence, Novak Djokovic, a two-time winner and responsible for two of Nadal’s three defeats in Paris, will seek to edge out the Spaniard with a record 23rd major.
However, he faces serious threats from Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev, currently the two best players in the world ahead of Djokovic.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, seeded fifth and second to Djokovic in the 2021 final after squandering a two-set lead, begins his bid for a maiden Grand Slam later on Sunday against Czech Republic’s Jiri Vesely.
Tsitsipas had a strong season on clay, finishing runners-up to Alcaraz in Barcelona and advancing to the semi-finals in Rome last week.
Former top 40 player Vesely has dropped to 452 worldwide and hasn’t played a match on the main ATP Tour all year.
However, the 29-year-old Czech shouldn’t be underestimated – he beat Djokovic at the 2016 Monte-Carlo Masters and again in Dubai last year.
He and Marat Safin are the only players to have beaten Djokovic multiple times unbeaten.
Andrey Rublev, seeded seventh and Monte Carlo champion in April, will start against Laslo Djere of Serbia.
Rublev has reached the quarter-finals in Paris twice while 57th-placed Djere has twice made the third round.
Women’s third seed Jessica Pegula and eighth seed Maria Sakkari are also in action on Sunday.
Pegula, quarter-finalist in 2022, tackles fellow American Danielle Collins.
Sakkari reached the semi-finals in 2021 where she was beaten in an epic three sets by eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova.
Another Czech player, Karolina Muchova is her opponent on Sunday.