Pro-Russian demonstrators targeted the Australian Open on Wednesday with a fan displaying the controversial ‘Z’ symbol on Rod Laver Arena and flags picturing the face of Vladimir Putin paraded outside Melbourne Park.
A section of supporters chanted “Serbia, Russia, Serbia, Russia” on the steps of the main show court here in Melbourne, while an image of Putin’s face on top of the Russian flag was flown by one fan amid the celebrations following Novak Djokovic’s victory over Russia’s Andrey Rublev.
Earlier – while the match was still going on – a member of the Serbian-supporting group inside the stadium made a political statement via his clothing. Having arrived wearing a white T-shirt with Djokovic’s name on, the man took it off to reveal a black T-shirt carrying the pro-war emblem “Z”.
👀 And just like that … we believe this is the 1st display of the Z symbol of Russia’s war on Ukraine at the international tennis tournament.
🤔 Looks like he was hiding it under the white t-shirt huh? pic.twitter.com/iG6Z0wtdkq
— Ukrainian Tennis • BTU (@ukrtennis_eng) January 25, 2023
Pictures also appear to show Djokovic unwittingly signing an autograph for the man as he held out the white T-shirt after his victory over Russian No1 Rublev, where he is then wearing a coat to conceal the ‘Z’ symbol.
Tennis Australia’s security was slow to react to the displays, even though another man held up the Russian flag – which had been expressly banned by tournament officials earlier in the tournament.
In a statement, Tennis Australia said: “Four people in the crowd leaving the stadium revealed inappropriate flags and symbols and threatened security guards.
“Victoria Police intervened and are continuing to question them. The comfort and safety of everyone is our priority and we work closely with security and authorities.”
The scenes will tarnish the Australian Open, which has previously dealt with violent clashes between fans from the large Serbian and Croatian communities in Melbourne, but has not seen this sort of political display before.
Just took a walk around Melbourne Park after filing and a group of people were standing on the Rod Laver Arena steps, holding up a flag with Vladimir Putin’s face and chanting in support of Russia. pic.twitter.com/2p0LfkyVC3
— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) January 25, 2023
Djokovic always draws large numbers of fans to his matches at this event – which he has won nine times – and many arrive carrying or wearing the Serbian flag in some form.
On this occasion, a small minority took the opportunity to promote the Russian cause. Traditionally, the links between Serbia and Russia have been strong due to their shared Slavic heritage and their Eastern Orthodox religion.
The Australian Open is building towards a concluding weekend that could underline why Wimbledon chose to ban Russians and Belarusians last summer.
The last four women include two Belarusians in Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka, as well as Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, who was born in Moscow but plays under the Kazakh flag.
The last four men include Russia’s Karen Khachanov, who has already become involved in a political row during this tournament after expressing his support for a small Armenian community which protests its independence from Azerbaijan.
Billie Jean King calls for end to Wimbledon’s Russia and Belarus ban
By Molly McElwee
The incident comes after Billie Jean King called on Wimbledon to reverse its ban on Russian and Belarusian players at the Championships this July.
Last year Wimbledon organisers became outliers in tennis when they opted to omit players from Russia and Belarus, in response to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
It prompted a huge row within the sport, and the WTA and ATP withdrew ranking points from Wimbledon as well as imposing fines as punishment.
Wimbledon are expected to formally announce a U-turn on their policy in the next few weeks, and King - one of the founders of the women's tour - has urged them to do so.
"Just keep it the same way as the other ones are," she told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday. "Life is too short. Just have them play and get their money. It's the ranking points, for sure. They have to have it.
"Rybakina, they've seeded her 25th, but because she won Wimbledon, she's not [seeded higher]. We are a platform to have discussions on this. I think it's important. The WTA was started for that, so we'd all have one voice, too, to help protect players.”
At the Australian Open, Azarenka and Sabalenka could make it an all-Belarusian showdown on Saturday, if they win their respective semi-finals. The irony is that neither were allowed to compete at Wimbledon last season, due to Belarusian athletes being banned as a result of their country's allyship with Putin.
“I really want it to happen," Sabalenka said of possibly facing her compatriot in the final. "I know that Vika will do everything she can to make it happen. I will do everything I can to make it happen. It would be history. That's going to be just unbelievable and tough to realise that this is actually happening."
Asked about how the ban and talk of war and politics impacted her last year, Sabalenka said: "Well, I would say that of course it affected me a lot. That was tough and it's still tough. But I just understand that it's not my fault. Like, I have zero control. If I could do something, of course I would do it, but I cannot do anything. I just have this understanding really helping me to stay strong."
Sabalenka is the highest seed left in the draw, at No 5, and in fine form. She has won all 18 of the sets she has played this year, and on Wednesday beat Croatia's Donna Vekic 6-3 6-2.
Though she has consistently ranked within the top 10 for the past three seasons, and has reached Wimbledon and US Open semi-finals in that time, but her performance this past fortnight is a marked improvement from when she last stepped out in Melbourne. Last year she suffered from a serious case of the serving yips, recording 428 double faults over the season - over 100 more than the player ranked second in that category.
She will need to keep those nerves at bay on Thursday when she faces Magda Linette of Poland, for a shot at her first Grand Slam final. It will be her fourth attempt, after semi-final losses at Wimbledon and the US Open previously. "All those ups and downs didn't help me at all in the semi-finals before," she said. "So it's going to be a really test for me, if I can keep myself calm like I was keeping myself calm during these past matches in the key moments."
After working with a biomechanics expert, she seems to have addressed the issue but will need to keep those nerves at bay in the semi-final on Thursday, when she faces Magda Linette of Poland for a place in her first major final.
Former two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka will face Rybakina.