The sensitivities over the invasion of Ukraine by Russia continue, exacerbated by Novak Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, who tastelessly was filmed on the steps of Rod Laver Arena standing with a group displaying a banned Russian flag superimposed with an image of President Vladimir Putin’s face after his son had won his Australian Open quarter-final contest with Russia’s Andrey Rublev on Wednesday night.
A small group of people displayed inappropriate flags and symbols and threatened security guards following a match on Wednesday night and were evicted. One patron is now assisting police with unrelated matters. Players and their teams have been briefed and reminded of the event policy regarding flags and symbols and to avoid any situation that has the potential to disrupt. We continue to work closely with event security and law enforcement agencies. Tennis Australia statement
The clip appeared on YouTube and caused a furore, prompting Srdjan to announce that he would not be attending his son’s semi-final on Friday.
“I am here to support my son only,” Srdjan said in a statement on Friday. “I was outside with Novak’s fans, as I have done after all of my son’s matches, to celebrate his wins and take pictures with them. I had no intention of being caught up in this.
“My family has lived through the horror of war, and we wish only for peace.
“So there is no disruption to tonight’s semi-final for my son or for the other player, I have chosen to watch from home.”
One of the men in the video was wearing a T-shirt with the symbol ‘Z’, an emblem representing support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Conspiracy theories abound, with the actions of the dozen or so protesters, who posted the video on YouTube, dragging tennis into politics.
The support the men expressed for Putin’s murderous regime was shocking, but then, in Djokovic’s native Serbia, large sections of public opinion have a historical empathy for Russia, which many regard as a fellow Slavic Orthodox big brother.
The mercenary army Wagner, which has taken convicts from Russia to fight Putin’s war in Ukraine, has claimed it was also recruiting in Serbia.
In the video, Srdjan Djokovic appeared to say ‘Long live Russia’, but it is those around him who give rise to concern, as they sent a greeting to Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves, an ultranationalist Russian bikie club.
Zaldostanov, who rode next to Putin in a motorcycle parade in 2011, led a group of Russian ‘volunteers’ during Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The US, the European Union and Canada have imposed sanctions on Zaldostanov and the Night Wolves as an organisation for their support of Russia’s criminal aggression, but even though the Night Wolves have a local chapter with close links to Moscow head office, they have not been added to Australia’s sanction list.
Plus, Aussie Cossack is run by Putin supporter Simeon Boikov and, before the quarter-final on Wednesday night, he had called on Russian supporters to ‘strike back’ at the Australian Open.
“The Russian empire has had its flag banned,” he said. “Well guess what Tennis Australia? Good luck when the empire strikes back.”
This all helps to fuel Putin’s propaganda campaign because, if Australia comes down too hard, it will be open to accusations by the Kremlin that the defence of free speech and multiculturalism is hypocritical.
Many Australians see the events at the tennis as an annoying distraction, and wish that the players and fans would not bring their political feuds to their country.
Russian and Belarusian flags are prohibited from the tournament, a ban reinforced by Tennis Australia on Thursday, who stated the organisation stood with ‘the call for peace and an end to war and violent conflict in Ukraine’.
The Ukrainian Ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, described Wednesday’s incident as ‘a disgrace’ and called for Tennis Australia to ban Djokovic from the Australian Open, where his son could well add to his 21 Grand Slam titles.
The incident caused embarrassment to tournament organisers and resulted in security being stepped up, but TA boss Craig Tiley, who tried to get Djokovic into the event on a medical exemption last year, has decided not to sanction Srdjan Djokovic.
A Tennis Australia statement read: “A small group of people displayed inappropriate flags and symbols and threatened security guards following a match on Wednesday night and were evicted. One patron is now assisting police with unrelated matters.
“Players and their teams have been briefed and reminded of the event policy regarding flags and symbols and to avoid any situation that has the potential to disrupt. We continue to work closely with event security and law enforcement agencies.”
Organisers apparently also warned the Djokovic family about their conduct.
Marta Kostyuk, the last Ukrainian competing at Melbourne Park, said, after exiting the tournament in the semi-final of the doubles, that she felt hurt by the pro-Russian demonstrations.
The 20 year-old, though, was reluctant to comment further on the storm surrounding Djokovic’s father after being subjected to a torrent of hate from the Serbian star’s fans.
“It hurts a lot because there were specific rules that were printed out outside, you’re not allowed to bring out the flags and so on,” she said after going down 6-2 6-2 to Czechs Barbora Krejcikova & Katerina Siniakova.
“I think these kind of things cannot be left unseen, because it doesn’t matter who you are, no one is allowed to do it. It’s very upsetting. I cannot give you an answer what the tournament should do.
“First of all, it’s not in my power. Second of all, no matter what I say, I’m going to be hated the rest of my life, especially by very aggressive Novak fans. People know that, not all of them, Novak has very aggressive fans. I know this because I experienced this in the past. I got so much hate especially from Serbian fans.”
With Wimbledon weighing up over the coming months whether to reverse its bans on players from Russia and Belarus, she is inclined to think that it should stay.
“For me it is going to be a difficult moment for Wimbledon,” she added. “I think yes. Because I cannot imagine if someone Russian or Belarusian wins the tournament and then royal family has to hold the trophies with them. I hardly imagine this.
“This is one of the big reasons they actually banned them. So I think yes.”
American legend Billie Jean King has called for organisers of Wimbledon to lift the ban on Russian and Belarusian players at the 2023 tournament, despite all the controversy surrounding their participation at the Australian Open.
“Just keep it the same way as the other ones are – life is too short,” said King, whose 12 Grand Slam singles title included the Australian Open in 1968.
Players from both countries were barred from the grass court Grand Slam last year over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the tournament stripped of ranking points and fined as a result.
Two Belarusians, Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka, made it into the semi-finals but Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, stopped the former from progressing, while the latter beat Magda Linette to advance to meet her in the final.
“It’s the ranking points, for sure,” added King. “They have to have it. Rybakina, they’ve seeded her 22, but because she won Wimbledon she’s not [seeded higher].”
Meanwhile, Azarenka was labelled as a ‘Moscow-adjacent pawn’ by renowned and awarded tennis journalist Peter Bodo after she came out in support of Novak Djokovic and his father, accusing the two-time AO champion as a sympathiser of the Russian regime in light of some of her recent comments.
Scores of people took aim at Djokovic for his father’s actions, and when Azarenka was asked about the incident during her press conference after losing to Elena Rybakina in the semi-finals on Thursday, particularly whether Srdjan’s actions would impact herself and other players in light of the increased scrutiny placed on Russian and Belarusian players, she appeared tight-lipped in her response but then threw her weight behind the 21-time Major champion.
“You’re here talking about it right now, so obviously it’s a topic you want to continue to bring up, and up, and up again,” she said, smiling. “I don’t know what you want me to say.
“I don’t know what it has to do with Novak at all, to be fair, so, I don’t know what you guys want us to do about it. Like talk about it? I don’t know what’s the goal here, that it’s continuously brought up.
“These incidents that, in my opinion, have nothing to do with players, but somehow you keep dragging players into it.”
Bodo, who has twice won the WTA Best Writer of the Year Award, questioned her commitment and integrity towards both the WTA and the United States of America, where she is now a resident, tweeting: “Prickly Victoria Azarenka refuses to answer totally legit questions about Srdjan Djokovic’s actions, and scorns media for asking. Is this a #WTA board member and de facto immigrant to the US, or a Moscow-adjacent pawn?”
When fans asked Bodo to give Azarenka the benefit of the doubt since she had only just suffered a heart-breaking loss in the semi-finals, he pointed out that she could have easily abstained from engaging in the discussion.
“She was free to say ‘no comment’ instead of denigrating the press and playing the victim,” Bodo said. “She could have said ‘no comment’ instead of pretending this isn’t an issue. Because you and I and everyone else know that damned well it is.”
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s Alexander Dolgopolov lashed out at Djokovic’s father, posting on Twitter: “Absolutely disgusting. Politics should be kept out of sports they said. These people have absolutely no business in being on tennis tournaments, including @DjokerNole father, if they openly praise a genocidal regime.”
The retired 34-year old player, who is fighting for his homeland, also called for a lifetime ban from the Australian Open for a spectator who wore a tee-shirt with the ‘Z’ Russian war symbol during the men’s singles quarter-final match between Rublev and Djokovic.
The national flags of Russia and Belarus are forbidden at the Grand Slam, as well as the former flags of the Russian Empire, mostly sporting black-and-yellow characteristics while, as well as these flags, the ‘Z’ symbol, which is associated with the Russian military and as nationalist propaganda insignia in the country, is also banned.
“This guy will get banned for life, at least for all Australian events, right? @Australian Open,” Dolgopolov, a quarter-finalist ay AO 2011, said in his post.