Novak Djokovic’s father says he will skip the Serbian star’s Friday night semi-final at Melbourne Park, amid a growing storm over his joining pro-Russian fans at the grand slam.
Srdjan Djokovic released a statement on Friday afternoon, his first public comments since footage emerged on Thursday of him appearing to mingle with pro-Russia, pro-Putin protestors on the steps of Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday night.
As he leaves the group, Mr Djokovic can be heard in the footage saying in Serbian: “Long live the Russians.”
“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,” he said.
“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.
“I wish for a great match and I will be cheering for my son, as always.”
The statement followed calls by Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, for Tennis Australia to strip Mr Djokovic of his access to Melbourne Park after Wednesday’s incident.
“It’s up to Tennis Australia to take action,” he told News Corp on Friday.
“I think it would be a very good idea not to let him in.
“I don’t know why he would say something like that considering what the Russians are doing in Ukraine, how many people they have killed, tortured, raped and all the summary executions that have happened against civilians.”
Djokovic is also expected to be grilled by journalists after Friday’s match against Tommy Paul.
His father’s statement came after the Serbian champ found himself in more drama, with an unearthed clip showing tension between him and Paul.
Footage emerged on social media on Friday of the pair at the 2022 Laver Cup.
It shows Djokovic hugging America’s Frances Tiafoe, embracing other officials, and shaking the hands of several players in Team America.
But Paul turns his back as the Serb approaches, appearing to snub his handshake.
As Djokovic walks away from the group, Paul turns back around and looks in Djokovic’s direction.
It’s unclear whether the timing was coincidental, or if Paul has ‘beef’ with the Serbian superstar.
But social media users were certain the clip would ruffle Djokovic’s feathers if he saw it ahead of his Friday night match.
“If Novak remembers, then I can see what’s going to happen in semis,” one Twitter user wrote.
One said Paul was a “dead man walking”, while another said his move was out of character.
“I find this pretty bizarre. Tommy Paul is one of the classiest guys on tour and it seems out of character,” they wrote.
“I’d like to know more.”
Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was asked if Mr Djokovic should be deported for his controversial actions. He did not answer directly, saying only:
“Australia stands with the people of Ukraine. That is Australia’s position and Australia is unequivocal in our support for the rule of international law,” he said.
“We do not want to see any support given to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that is having a devastating impact on the people of Ukraine.”
Federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton also called out Mr Djokovic.
“The Russian onslaught continues, and frankly everybody of goodwill should be trying to deter, not encourage Putin,” Mr Dutton told the Nine Network.
“It’s a bizarre act – sometimes you see these [things] from tennis parents and others over the years, but it’s an issue for Tennis Australia.”
Former player and Victorian opposition sports spokesman Sam Groth called on the state government and event organisers to “put an end to these unacceptable behaviours”.
“Acts of incitement have no place in our state and no place at our major events,” he said.
“The Australian Open must be a welcoming, safe and inclusive event for all, not an opportunity to express a harmful and offensive agenda or deliberately intimidate others.
Khachanov in hot water
While the outrage over Mr Djokovic continues, another men’s singles semi-finalist has also found himself at the centre of geopolitical controversy.
Russian 18th seed Karen Khachanov has been written pro-Armenia messages on TV cameras after several of his matches during the tournament.
Khachanov, who is half-Armenian, has written “Artsakh stay strong” – referring to the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which has been embroiled in conflict for decades.
On Friday, the Azerbaijan Tennis Federation demanded the International Tennis Federation take action against Khachanov.
In a letter to the ITF, Azerbaijan’s tennis federation called for sanctions on Khachanov, and for measures to prevent him making “unacceptable provocations” in the future.
The ITF said it had passed the letter on to the “relevant authorities”.
“Rules for player conduct at a grand slam event are governed by the grand slam rulebook administered by the relevant organiser and regulator,” it said.
Khachanov said the Australian Open had issued no warning. He defended his actions in a post-match conference on Wednesday, saying he meant no harm.
“I say many times. I have Armenian roots,” Khachanov said.
“From my father’s side, from my grandfather’s side, even from my mom’s side. I’m half Armenian.
“To be honest, I don’t want to go deeper than that, and I just wanted to show strength and support to my people. That’s it.”
Azarenka fires up
With two of the men’s semi-finalists embroiled in political controversy, one women’s semi-finalist is refusing to get involved.
Azarenka, who is Belarusian, lost out on a place in the finals to reigning Wimbledon champ Elena Rybakina.
Azarenka unloaded when asked if Djokovic’s controversy had affected her or other players in Melbourne. She called the questions “provocative”, and asked what “the goal” was with them.
“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,” she said.
“These incidents that, in my opinion, have nothing to do with players, but somehow you keep dragging players into it. So what’s the goal here? I think you should ask yourself that question, not me.”
The moderator shut down further questions on the topic.
Azarenka was one of three semi-finalists across the women’s and men’s draws to compete as neutral athletes in Melbourne.
Fellow Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, who will play in Saturday’s women’s singles final, has also been barred from representing her country. Her Russian opponent, Elena Rybakina, will represent Kazakhstan.
Rybakina was born in Moscow and still lives there. But she strategically switched her nationality in 2018 to obtain more funding for her singles career.
In the men’s draw, Russian Karen Khachanov has no flag next to his name.
‘Be better prepared’
Wednesday night’s pro-Russian protest has stoked fears that of similar scenes at other grand slams this year.
Tennis correspondent James Gray said the British government had already instructed Wimbledon organisers to be prepared to prevent protestors hijacking the prestigious event.
Wimbledon took a firm stance last year when it banned Russian and Belarusian players altogether as a punishment for the invasion of Ukraine.
That meant Wimbledon 2022 was stripped of ranking points – women’s winner Rybakina and the men’s victor, Djokovic, earned no ranking points for their respective victories.
Wimbledon organisers are mulling whether to extend the ban into 2023.
At the Australian Open this week, tennis legend Billie Jean King urged Wimbledon to reconsider, saying “life is too short”.
“Just keep it the same way as the other ones are. Life is too short,” said King.
“I think they should get prize money. Just have them play and get their money.”
Tennis great John McEnroe said he didn’t believe Russian and Belarusian players should be punished.
“Obviously this is an horrific situation which is going on in the war and people deal with it in different ways,” he told Reuters.
“It’s a situation that no one wants. So hopefully something will change that allows the players to play. It happens that in our sport, some of our top male and female players come from those two countries. They shouldn’t, I don’t believe, be punished for something that they have nothing to do with.”
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