Australian Open 2023 saw the return of the world’s best tennis player Novak Djokovic to the throne. His 10th Australian Open title was, in the champion’s own words, “his greatest ever victory”.
It was also a triumph of deeds over words, a victory of liberty and endurance over the media frenzy that fed on the negative news stories about Djokovic and his family over the past year. The stories were almost popular as Prince Harry’s Royal Family dramas, but with the addition of Australian immigration laws, the change of government and the Labor Minister for Immigration Andrew Giles’ reversal of Novak’s unfairly imposed three-year entry ban.
However, this year’s event also had many bizarre political nuances, some of which we will try to capture below.
The famous tennis contest is regarded as the most visited public event in Australia, attracting 902,312 spectators over three weeks in Melbourne. It is expected that the revenue generated from this year’s event will exceed the previous years’ sums.
However, AO 2023 did not go without political controversy too. There were hidden messages and political symbols on display throughout the event, while the Russian and Belorussian flags (including the old Russian flag) were banned items alongside the letter ‘Z’ which is in the popular interpretation linked with Russia’s self-named “special operation” in Ukraine. In addition, Russian and Belorussian players were assigned a white flag instead of their traditional national colours, and a Belorussian player Aryna Sabalenka, who won her maiden Grand Slam trophy in Melbourne, was left only with her name and no country engraved in the Cup.
Is Australian Open becoming less state-based and more utopian? Probably not, but it is certain that politics and sports mixed heavily at this year’s event, overshadowed by the fallout from Australia’s stringent and confusing Covid-19 era border control policies, as well as the devastating conflict in Ukraine which threatens to spill into a wider conflict in not-too-distant future.
Despite the official ban, there was a person displaying the letter ‘Z’ on their clothing in Melbourne Park; their actual name may have contained the very letter, so the messaging was rather unclear. There was a sign displaying “Mehdi Ali” by one of the spectators, symbolizing the plight of asylum seekers in Australian detention centres which the Djokovic visa cancellation drama last year brought to the forefront of political debate.
There were also national symbols of Russia amongst the crowd, defying the Australian Open entry rules but also challenging the perception held by some about the so-called “cancel culture” towards anything Russian in the West, including the historic Russian flags.
Then, there was a political message expressed in support of the Armenian position regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, prompting Azerbaijan’s tennis federation’s call for Karen Khachanov (Russian player with Armenian heritage) to be sanctioned.
AO2023 will also be remembered with a record number of Serbian fans and flags among spectators, cheering for their favourite tennis player who has been often portrayed as a villain by the Australian mainstream media. But Djokovic was gracious in his victory towards his opponent, emotional and triumphant, even advising the younger players that “if you find even one person in this world who believes in you, you can achieve anything”. Even Melbournian radio broadcaster Neil Mitchell, not a fan of Novak Djokovic who earlier said he “hoped Novak would not win”, could not contain his admiration for Djokovic’s honest display of emotions at the end of the tournament. What will Australian Open 2024 bring? More sports and less politics? In an era of rising global tensions, this is rather foolish to expect.