With Aryna Sabalenka and Novak Djokovic in action on Friday, day six of the French Open could once again see off-court issues grabbing the headlines despite both players having made clear their desire to put controversy in the rear-view mirror.
Sabalenka’s two matches so far have been overshadowed by the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the Belarusian refusing to answer questions about it in a press conference after beating compatriot Iryna Shymanovich on Wednesday. The Australian Open champion was urged by her first-round opponent, Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, to take a personal stand on the war and with Russian Kamilla Rakhimova up next, Sabalenka could once again have to address the issue.
Another match featuring political overtones is the clash between Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina and Russia’s Anna Blinkova. Svitolina, who has called for all Russian and Belarusian tennis players to be banned from international competition, did not shake hands with Blinkova when the pair met at last week’s final at Strasbourg in which Svitolina emerged victorious.
In the men’s draw, Djokovic will also be looking to avoid discussion surrounding his statement this week that “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”, as he continues his quest for a record 23rd Grand Slam title when he faces Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
Belgrade-born Djokovic wrote the message on a TV camera following his win over Aleksandar Kovacevic on Monday, after NATO peacekeeping soldiers were injured in clashes with Serb protesters in the northern Kosovo town of Zvecan, where Djokovic’s father grew up. Asked about the message following his straight sets win over Marton Fucsovics on Wednesday, Djokovic had this to say.
“It’s something that I stand for. So that’s all…I have no more comment on that. I said what I needed to say,” says Djokovic.
Djokovic will be keen to focus his attentions on Spanish 29th seed Davidovich Fokina, who has caused problems for the Serb in the past having beaten the former world number one on clay at last year’s Monte Carlo Masters.
In another tasty third-round clash, top seed Carlos Alcaraz faces Canadian Denis Shapovalov in their first meeting, though the Spaniard is aware of the threat posed by the former world No. 10.
“I practised in Barcelona with him. But everybody knows his level. He’s a really dangerous player. He has great shots. It’s going to be a really difficult match,” the U.S. Open champion said.
Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who reached the final in 2021, will play Diego Schwartzman. British 14th seed Cameron Norrie is in action against 17th seed Lorenzo Musetti, who now leads Italy’s charge for a first French Open men’s winner since Adriano Panatta in 1976 after Jannik Sinner’s elimination on Thursday.