Sports, Tennis

Ukraine v Belarus clash kicks off new era at French Open

Published : 28 May 2023 07:36 PM | Updated : 28 May 2023 07:36 PM

A potentially explosive clash between Ukraine's Marta Kostyuk and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus kicks off a new era at the French Open on Sunday 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, Novak Djokovic, a two-time winner, and the man responsible for two of Nadal's three career losses in Paris, will look to edge ahead of the Spaniard with a record-setting 23rd major.

However, the road to that tantalising prospect, which faces serious threats from the likes of Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev, doesn't start on Sunday.

Instead, the sporting fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine takes top billing on opening day.

World number two and Australian Open champion Sabalenka of Belarus takes on Ukraine's Kostyuk first up on the showpiece Court Philippe Chatrier.

Kostyuk 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.

The 39th-ranked Kostyuk, a vociferous critic of the decision to allow Russian and Belarusian players to keep competing on tour since the invasion of her country, is expected to repeat her snub of the traditional end-of-match handshake on Sunday.

"If she hates me, OK. I can't do anything about that," said 25-year-old Sabalenka.

"About the no shaking, I can kind of understand them. Like I imagine if they're going to shake hands with Russians and Belarusians, then they're gonna get so many messages from their home countries."

"If they feel good with no shaking hands, I'm happy with that."