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Tennis : The Australian Open and the politics of sport

A supporter holds a Russian flag during the match between Marcos Giron (US) and Russia’s Daniil Medvedev at the Australian Open on 16 January, 2023, a day before the flags of Russia and Belarus were banned.
Photo: AFP

By Dave Worsley*

Opinion – There’s no getting away from the politics of sport and sport of politics.

The Australian Open in 2023 has seen politics take over the sport. Aside from Russian and Belarusian players not being allowed to have flags next to their name or be identified officially from their country, the issues have been amplified with some quick changes of rules around the sport.

At Wimbledon last year, Russian and Belarusian players were banned due to the invasion of Ukraine. However Russian-born player Elena Rybakina, who was still living in Moscow, won the women’s title. This was after switching allegiance to Kazakhstan four years earlier to be given more financial support as a young professional.

Wimbledon was then punished for taking away the right of players to compete with all ranking points removed. Players received prize money but didn’t improve their rankings no matter how far they progressed in the tournament.

At the Australian Open, flags were allowed for fans from Russia and Belarus, but when a flag was spotted very much in the distance of a camera things quickly changed and flags were officially banned with security at every entry are taught to search for them.

And then it turned nasty.

Novak Djokovic’s father Srdjan was filmed posing with Serbian fans who had somehow entered Melbourne Park with pro-Russian flags as well as pro-Vladimir Putin material. The footage was loaded on a pro-Russian Australian YouTube account and appears to show Srdjan with ‘fans’ and the “Z” pro-war symbol associated with the Ukraine invasion.

While the association with the fans was bad enough, it was that Djokovic senior appeared to say “long live the Russians”. He is of course entitled to his opinions but this will cause major issues and lacks common sense – and now puts his son under the microscope.

Four spectators had been spoken to by police as a result of the incident according to Tennis Australia. The four also had threatened security guards. Police later said that all four men were evicted from the site.

Serbia as a nation is a supporter of Russia with its president, Aleksandar Vucic, a vocal supporter of Putin.

Meanwhile tournament organisers have “briefed and reminded” players and their teams over the policy regarding Russian flags at the event.

The fact is that out of the four women’s semfinalists two were Belarusians. One was born in Russia and still living there but playing under the Kazak flag, the other is Polish and her nation is taking in large number of Ukrainian refugees.

Just to stir things up a little more in the hotbed that is the former Soviet Union, men’s semifinalist Karen Kachanov signed a TV camera lens with a political statement.

Kachanov, 26, who has strong Armenian family links wrote “Artsakh stay strong” in what is seen as a message of support for the Armenian-dominated Republic of Artsakh – the Nagorno-Karabakh region disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has faced a humanitarian crisis since its only connecting road to Armenia was made unusable by a blockade in December.

The world No 20 front-footed media saying “I have Armenian roots from my father’s side, from my grandfather’s side, even from my mum’s side. I’m half Armenian. I just want to show strength and support to my people. That’s it.”

Khachanov was born in Russia, but lists his residence as Dubai.

Anyone for tennis?

*Tennis journalist Dave Worsley is covering his 23rd Australian Open and is an RNZ contributor.

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