Nearly a year after Russia invaded Ukraine, controversial star Novak Djokovic lifted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after only serving one year of his three-year deportation sentence. On the women’s side, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka beat Elena Rybakina, a Russian-turned-Kazakh. On the men’s side, But when—how—did tennis, a sport that prides itself on being a “gentleman’s sport” and an international phenomenon become a hotbed for geopolitics?
For a year, tennis, the most international of all professional sports, has tried to balance its opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the hope of sports rising above politics. Following the International Tennis Federation’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players in team tournaments, as well as any symbols that may symbolize those countries, whether or not individual players will be allowed to play in tournaments throughout 2023 remains unclear. Ukrainian players have lobbied for Russian and Belarussian players to be banned from competing altogether, but others have argued that banning individuals rather than federations will prove a futile effort towards diplomacy.
In the AO women’s semifinal, Rybakina beat another Belarusian, Victoria Azarenka, to secure a spot against eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka. Runner up Rybakina won Wimbledon this summer competing without a flag; the Australian Open both marks a bitter-sweet second Grand Slam final and a deep irony for a sport that has tried so hard to rise above politics. Their victories occurred just hours after videos surfaced of Djokvic’s father, Srjdan, posing in a shirt bearing the pro-war “Z” logo and waving a Russian flag.
Following last year’s visa and vaccination drama, Djokovic was hungry to match Rafael Nadal’s record-setting twenty-two Grand Slam titles. And he did—beating Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas in a relatively straightforward 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) final. But battling the media after his father Srjdan’s controversial pro-Russian protests proved the hardest match of the tournament.
The discord began after Djokovic’s quarter final defeat of Russian Andrey Rublev, whereafter Srjdan posed for photos with flag-carrying Russian supporters while wearing a shirt bearing the “Z” symbol demonstrating support for the war in Ukraine. Though Tennis Australia (organizers of the Australian Open) prohibited fans from exhibiting Russian and Belarusian flags and symbols in support of Russia’s war with Ukraine, Srjdan was seemingly exempt from this rule. He did not attend Djokovic’s semi-final clash against American Tommy Paul and later released a statement saying that he “wished for peace.”
As the tennis season progresses over the year, one has to wonder if 2023 will mark a rare triumph of principle over neutrality, or if the tennis court will prove to be the site of more of both physical and political matchups.