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An Australian Open final with tennis and debate on the Ukrainian war

MELBOURNE, Australia — In both women’s semifinals at the Australian Open on Thursday night, geopolitics won in straight sets.

For nearly a year, professional tennis – the most international sport with its globetrotting program and players from around the world – has tried to balance its outspoken opposition to the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir V. Putin with the hope that his competitions rise above the quagmire of international politics.

It is not going well. Geopolitics was omnipresent at the Australian Open and will be at the center of the women’s final.

It has been 11 months since the sport banned Russia and Belarus from participating in team events at tournaments, along with any symbols identifying those countries. It has been nine months since Wimbledon banned players representing Russia and Belarus from competing, and it is unclear whether they will be able to play this year. Ukrainian players lobbied to be banned from all events instead of simply not being allowed to play under their flag or for their country.

That didn’t happen, and on Saturday Elena Rybakina, a native Russian who became a citizen of Kazakhstan five years ago in exchange for financial support, and Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus will meet for the women’s singles title. .

Rybakina and Sabalenka, who blast serves and submit their opponents, played tight early sets and then ran away with their matches.

Rybakina beat Victoria Azarenka, another Belarusian, 7-6 (4), 6-3, while Sabalenka beat Magda Linette of Poland, 7-6 (1), 6-2. The conditions at this tournament – hot weather, hard-to-spin balls – favored big flat hitters from the opening round, making the final showdown between Rybakina and Sabalenka almost inevitable.

The match is sure to reignite the debate over Russian and Belarusian participation in sports, a discussion that has become increasingly heated in recent days, both at this tournament and around the world. Rybakina and Sabalenka’s wins came hours after videos emerged of Novak Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, posing with fans who waved a Russian flag and displayed the pro-war “Z” logo expressing support for Russia, against tournament rules. Serbia and Russia have close historical and cultural ties.

Another video angered Ukraine’s Ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, who wrote on Twitter, “It’s a complete package. Among the Serbian flags there are: a Russian flag, Putin, symbol Z, so-called flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Last week Tennis Australia, organizers of the Australian Open, banned fans from displaying any form of Russian or Belarusian flags or other symbols supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine.

On Thursday, Tennis Australia said four people waving the prohibited flags were arrested and questioned by police for both revealing the “inappropriate flags” and threatening security guards.

Djokovic, the nine-time Australian Open champion, plays in Friday’s semifinal against Tommy Paul of the United States.

On Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee made it clear that it intended to have athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. The move went against the stated wishes of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who lobbied French President Emmanuel Macron on the issue earlier this week.

Last year, the IOC recommended that sports federations not allow athletes from these countries to compete, a decision it said prevented Olympic sports from preventing national governments of countries hosting competitions from inserting their sports politics. Most international sports federations have followed this recommendation, but a few have recently softened their positions.

In a statement on Wednesday, the organization said: “No athlete should be prevented from competing simply because of their passport.” The IOC said it planned to pursue “a pathway for athletes’ participation in competition under strict conditions”. If this follows recent precedent, it will most likely involve requiring Russians and Belarusians to compete under a neutral flag or no flag at all and in uniforms without their national colors.

Russian and Belarusian athletes could also participate in the Asian Games later this year, which will serve as an Olympic qualifier.

The geopolitical conflict at the Australian Open was not even limited to the war in Ukraine. Russia’s Karen Khachanov, who faces Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-final on Friday, wrote messages of support for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is a long-disputed enclave home to tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan, where a full-scale war was fought in 2020. Since December, Azerbaijani militants have blocked a main supply route to Nagorno-Karabakh. , causing a growing humanitarian crisis.

Khachanov, who is of Armenian descent and has spent a lot of time in the country, said Wednesday he “just wanted to show his strength and support for my people.”

Khachanov’s messages prompted Azerbaijani officials to write to the International Tennis Federation asking it to punish Khachanov. His posts do not violate any tournament or federation rules. He said Wednesday that no one told him to stop writing them.

All of this has put tennis back where it was last summer at Wimbledon. The tournament, along with the Lawn Tennis Association, has banned players from taking part in the sport’s most prestigious event and preparation tournaments in Britain.

Both the men’s and women’s tours responded by refusing to award ranking points, an attempt to essentially turn Wimbledon into an exhibition. All Grand Slams are supposed to abide by the sport’s rules prohibiting discrimination, but the failure to award points for wins at Wimbledon has also turned the tour standings into something of a farce.

Rybakina, a Russian as a child who became a citizen of Kazakhstan at 18 when the country promised to pay for her tennis coaching, spent the better part of two weeks wondering if she was really Kazakh or Russian and beating herself up. ask to answer for her native invading the country as she rushed towards the title. His family still lives in Russia.

Most of the time, she didn’t have to answer political questions here. Real Russians and Belarusians received them, allowing Rybakina to focus on tennis.

“I think at Wimbledon I answered all the questions,” she said. “There is nothing more to say.”

Sabalenka and the other players from Belarus and Russia didn’t have that luxury. They know how the world and many of their competitors have perceived them and their countries.

“I just understand that it’s not my fault,” she said. “I have no control. If I could do something, of course I would, but I can’t do anything.

Political currents show no signs of letting up. Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association are discussing whether to let players from Belarus and Russia participate this year. A decision is expected in the coming weeks. Wimbledon was the only Grand Slam to ban them from participating.

Djokovic, the reigning Wimbledon champion and seven-time championship winner, strategized with his nascent players’ organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association, to get the ban lifted.

The Russian players are desperate to return to the All England Club.

“The last information I heard was maybe a week ago that the announcement would be in a few weeks,” Andrey Rublev said after Djokovic beat him in the quarter-finals on Wednesday. “We are all waiting. I hope we can play. I would like to play. Wimbledon is one of the best tournaments in our sport.

sports Gt

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