Sabalenka found it tough to face 'hate' in locker room

Tennis: BNP Paribas Open
Mar 19, 2023; Indian Wells, CA, USA; Aryna Sabalenka reacts after winning a point but she was defeated by Elena Rybakina (KAZ) in the women’s final of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

March 22 (Reuters) - Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka said she struggled to understand the "hate" she encountered in the locker room amid strained relations between some players following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The world number two has previously said she has nothing against Ukrainian people and felt bad for them as Moscow's action rages on. Belarus has been a staging area for the invasion, which Moscow calls a "special military operation".

"It was really tough for me because I've never faced that much hate in the locker room," Sabalenka said ahead of the Miami Open. "There are a lot of haters on Instagram when you're losing matches, but in the locker room I've never faced that.

"It was really tough to understand that there's so many people who hate me for no reason. I did nothing."

Australian Open champion Sabalenka lost in the final of Indian Wells to Elena Rybakina on Sunday.

Earlier in the tournament, Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko withdrew from her match against Sabalenka over a panic attack triggered by a conversation with WTA chief Steve Simon about tennis's response to Russia's invasion.

Sabalenka said she had been having "weird conversations" with members of some players' teams in the last year.

"It was really tough but now it's getting better," she said.

World number one Iga Swiatek has called for more support to be offered to Ukrainian players, saying the tennis leadership was not doing enough, but two-times Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus said that was not the case.

"There are certain players that have different feelings and behaviours. Overall, I don't necessarily share the same opinion as Iga does," Azarenka said.

"I'd encourage her to look at the things that have been done before she makes comments. As a player council member I'm happy to provide the facts. That would be a more appropriate way to have that conversation."

Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford

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