MELBOURNE — Police are questioning four fans at the Australian Open after they sang chants and held up flags supporting Russia and Vladimir Putin on the steps of the Rod Laver Arena.
Novak Djokovic had just equalled Andre Agassi’s record with a 26th match win in a row in Melbourne, beating No 5 seed Andrey Rublev.
Rublev is Russian but now lives and trains in Spain and by ITF rules has to play as a neutral athlete, without the name or flag of his country anywhere in the tournament.
Russian flags are also banned from the tournament, but after Djokovic’s quarter-final victory fans were seen outside the Rod Laver Arena carrying Russia flags, one of which bore Putin’s face and another which appeared to represent a motorcycle group closely aligned with the Russian president, as well as appearing to chant “Serbia Russia”.
“Four people in the crowd leaving the stadium revealed inappropriate flags and symbols and threatened security guards,” a Tennis Australia statement said.
“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.”
A fan was also seen in the stands during the match wearing a t-shirt with the Russian Z, which has become a rallying cry for those supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He later covered it up with another white t-shirt that said “Djokovic Dokic Messi”, which he then lowered down from the stands as Djokovic left the court for him to sign – which he did.
Fans were technically still allowed to bring Russian flags in with them when the tournament started as long as they did not ” use them to cause disruption” but a courtside incident last week drew a complaint from the Ukrainian ambassador and Tennis Australia chose to institute a ban on Russian and Belarusian flags instead.
The state government in Victoria said Tennis Australia had made the right decision.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is abhorrent,” acting premier Jancinta Allan said.
“It breaches international human rights obligations. It’s been enabled and supported by Belarus.
“[This] sends a very, very clear message that human rights are important, whether it’s in sport, or more broadly in our community.”
However, the semi-finals line-up in the singles features two Belarusian women (Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka) and a Russian man (Karen Khachanov), meaning authorities will have to be on their toes as the tournament reaches a climax.
The news will send shockwaves through sport, particularly at Wimbledon, where officials are considering whether to reverse the ban on Russian and Belarusian players, a decision that put them at odds with the other three grand slams and the professional tours last summer.
The All England Club (AELTC) already have rules banning large flags and “any objects or clothing bearing political statements, objectionable or offensive statements”, but these latest breaches at the Australian Open are difficult to police and may lead officials to think that continuing the blanket ban would send a stronger message to fans wishing to use the event to display support for the invasion.
Players from Russia and Belarus though, who make up 37 per cent of the semi-finalists here in Australia, are desperate to return to SW19.
“I hope [to play Wimbledon],” said Rublev after defeat to Djokovic.
“We’re all waiting. Hopefully we’ll be able to play. I wish, I would like, and I would love to play. Of course, Wimbledon is one of the best tournaments in our sport.”