It’s one of the most lovely staircase in tennis. But the benign stairs that usually lead to feel-good matches at either Laver or Margaret Court Arenas had a different feel yesterday. An intense, in-your-face and frightening group of about seven men and three women were shouting pro-authoritarian, pro-Putin chants: “Glory to Russia” and “Putin we love you.”
With fierce expressions and veins popping, they yelled loud, unfurling Russian, Putin and Serbian flags. They wore t-shirts with the letter “Z,” the pro-Ukrainian war symbol, and the message, “The only pandemic is how stupid people are.”
Novak Djokovic’s father Srdjan briefly appeared with them. Subsequently protestors reportedly threatened security workers and Victoria police. Four were detained.
The disturbing protest was just the most recent of a string of dustups at the Australian Open. Fans displayed a Russian flag near a match between a Ukrainian and a Russian player. Authorities then banned Russian and Belarusian flags, and the Ukrainian ambassador issued a statement decrying the display. Novak Djokovic, who received standing ovations, was also intensely heckled during two of his matches.
After winning his quarterfinal match, Karen Khachenov wrote, “Artsakh stay strong.” The message backed Armenians who are seeking an independent state in Azerbaijan.
In her press conference, Belarusian Victoria Azarenka dismissed the fact that the father of the No. 1 player in the world had backed a regime that launched a devastating war. She said that Novak Djokovic and the players had nothing to do with the protest, or Srdjan Djokovic’s appearance.
Tennis and politics have long been intertwined. Adolf Hitler called German Baron Gottfried von Cramm to encourage him before a key 1937 match against Don Budge at Wimbledon. Arthur Ashe played a significant role in bringing apartheid down in South Africa. California protestors threw tar on a Davis Cup court that was hosting the South African team, and South Africa was eventually banned from Davis Cup play. During the Virginia Slims era of tennis, protestors targeted cigarette manufacturers and Israel’s policies have drawn protests.
African dictators have hosted Davis Cup ties. Naomi Osaka and the US Open have called for racial justice and there have been environmental protests at recent Slams. And of course, last year, Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players, and Indian Wells flew the Ukrainian flag.
Still, it was a kick in the gut to see pro-authoritarian protestors ranting at the Happy Slam.
QUESTIONS ASKED, QUESTIONS ALMOST ANSWERED:
Just before the Aussie Open we asked ten questions about the tourney. With things now winding down, let’s look at the answers.
Will Novak win?
The Serb has been brushing aside his hamstring injury, mini-controversies and opponents, and seems to be on cruise control. He’s equaled Andre Agassi’s record of 26 consecutive Aussie Open matches wins and seems bound for his tenth title.
As his fellow Aussie Ash Barty did last year, can Nick Kyrgios make a big splash in Melbourne?
Nope. On the eve of the tourney, the Netflix star pulled out with a knee injury.
Will Iga roll?
Prohibitive favorite Iga Swiatek hadn’t lost an Aussie Open set until Wimbledon champ Elena Rybakina blasted her out of Melbourne 6-4, 6-4 in the fourth round. Iga said she wanted to win too much and now needs to chill and approach tournaments differently.
Can Rafa repeat?
Last year Nadal scored a miracle comeback to beat Daniil Medvedev. This year there were no miracles. When battling Mackie McDonald in the second round, his hip collapsed, and after losing in straight sets the fallen legend hobbled out of Laver Arena a beaten man.
Can America’s top man reach the Final Four?
Taylor Fritz came in on a roll. He clinched America’s United Cup win, was a star on Netflix and the No. 8 seed. But, like at the US Open, the Wimbledon quarterfinalist stumbled early. He lost in five sets to Aussi Alexei Popyrin in front of a raucous Down Under crowd.
Can Pegula make the final?
Just as she’d done in four earlier Slams, America’s top player, the No. 3 seed, fell in the quarters.
Will Coco win her first Slam?
Gauff’s game has improved. But Latvian Jelena Ostapenka demolished her in the fourth round. Coco and her pal Pegula are still in the doubles, and lest we forget, Gauff’s just 18.
Who, among the 14 American men in the draw, will be the last man standing?
American men had a spectacular Open – the best since 1996. Mackie McDonald beat the No. 1 seed Rafa Nadal. Jenson Brooksby beat the No. 2 seed Casper Ruud, six men made it to the third round, and three Yanks – Tommy Paul, Ben Shelton and Seb Korda – made it to the quarters. That’s a first since 2005.
Now the impressive Paul faces Novak in the semis. Simply put, the American pack was brilliant. The Aussie Open was just the kind of break-out Slam that US fans have been craving. Sure, it will be splendid when an American guy lifts a major trophy and ends our 20-year Slam drought. And Tommy does have a shot. But no matter what, it was a magical Melbourne for our guys.
Who among the 17 American women will go the furthest?
Last year Danielle Collins reached the finals. This year five US women made it to the third round. Only Pegula won. But then she lost.
Will a new era dawn in tennis?
We can respond with an emphatic, “Kind of.” Tennis will definitely have a first-time women’s Aussie winner – either Aryna Sabalenka or Elena Rybakina. And throughout the two weeks, dazzling young talents seemed to be shouting, “Hey tennis, there’s life beyond Federer and Serena!” In particular, Ben Shelton was a must-watch, lights-out sensation. The ex-quarterback who reached the quarters is a bound-for-glory-star – right? Plus, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Karen Khachanov and Paul all could become first-time Slam champs. But it’s likely Mr. Been-there-done-that Djokovic will claim the 64th Slam title for the Big 3, who, it seems, have ruled the sport since the first can of tennis balls was popped open.
FINAL SET: The women’s final will feature two powerful six-foot players. In her fourth attempt, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka prevailed in a major semi. The No. 5 seed easily dispatched the unseeded Pole, Magda Linette, and will face Wimbledon champ Elena Rybakina, who was born and often lives in Moscow, but represents Kazakhstan. This is the first Aussie Open final featuring two women of Eastern European heritage since 2008, when Maria Sharapova beat Serb Ana Ivanovic.
NOVAK CHALLENGES ROGER: In an on-court tribute to Federer, Novak said,“ Let’s give a big round of applause to Roger…Tennis misses him…I’ve seen him dressing up very sharply for [Paris’] Fashion Week…[and] I’ve seen him skiing. I want to challenge him for a little skiing race in a few years.”
BRIGHT SKIES FOR AMERICA: Ben Shelton suggested that, “At the end of this year Americans could have five, six guys in the top 20.”
OUCH! It’s bad enough that Pegula has lost five times in quarterfinals. Worse yet, Andrey Rublev has fallen seven times in the quarters.
PRISONER OF HER OWN SUCCESS: India’s Sania Mirza, who’s won 43 doubles titles, is through to the mixed doubles final with Rohan Bopanna. She’s such a legend that she can’t leave her house in Hyderabad.
GO FIGURE: Tommy Paul said if he could do it again he’d go to college for a year or two…Our favorite explanation by a tennis player who didn’t go to college came from Alexander Stevenson, who said she didn’t go to Stanford because too many people were wearing Birkenstocks and the campus was “too naturistic.”