MELBOURNE, Australia — In the two women’s semifinal matches at the Australian Open on Thursday night, geopolitics won in straight sets.
For nearly a year, professional tennis — the most international of sports with its globe-trotting schedule and players from all over the world — has tried to balance its stated opposition to the Russian president Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with its hopes that its competitions rise above the quagmire of international politics.
It is not going well. Geopolitics has been everywhere at the Australian Open and will be on center stage in the women’s final.
It has been 11 months since the sport banned Russia and Belarus from participating in team events at tournaments, as well as any symbol that identified those countries. It’s been nine months since Wimbledon prohibited players representing Russia and Belarus from competing, and it’s unclear whether they will be able to play this year. Players from Ukraine have lobbied to have them barred from all events instead of simply not being allowed to play under their flags or for their countries.
That has not happened, 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 of Belarus will meet for the women’s singles title.
Both Rybakina and Sabalenka, who blast serves and pummel opponents into submission, played tight first sets, then ran away with their matches.
Rybakina beat Victoria Azarenka, another Belarusian, 7-6 (4), 6-3, while Sabalenka topped Magda Linette of Poland, 7-6 (1), 6-2. Conditions at this tournament — warm weather, balls the players say are tough to spin — have favored the big flat hitters since the first round, making the final showdown between Rybakina and Sabalenka almost inevitable.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
- No Spotlight, No Problem: In tennis, there is a long history of success and exposure crushing champions or sucking the joy out of them. In this Australian Open, players under the radar have gone far.
- Victoria Azarenka’s ‘Little Steps’: The Belarusian player took a more process-oriented approach than in the past. The outcomes were strong.
- Behind the Scenes: A coterie of billionaires, deep-pocketed companies and star players has engaged for months in a high-stakes battle to lead what they view as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to disrupt the sport.
- Endless Games: As matches stretch into the early-morning hours, players have grown concerned for their health and performance.
The matchup is sure to rekindle the debate over Russian and Belarusian participation in sports, a discussion that has become increasingly heated in recent days, both at this tournament and throughout the world. Rybakina’s and Sabalenka’s victories occurred hours after videos surfaced of Novak Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, posing with fans whowaved a Russian flag and wore the pro-war “Z” logo and voicing his support of Russia, against tournament rules. Serbia and Russia have close historical and cultural ties.
Another video raised the ire of Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, who wrote on Twitter, “It’s a full package. Among the Serbian flags, there is: a Russian flag, Putin, Z-symbol, so-called Donetsk People’s Republic flag.”
Last week, Tennis Australia, organizers of the Australian Open, prohibited fans from exhibiting any form of the Russian or Belarusian flags or other symbols that supported Russia’s war in Ukraine.
On Thursday, Tennis Australia said four people waving the banned flags had been detained and questioned by the police for both revealing the “inappropriate flags” and threatening security guards.
Djokovic, the nine-time Australian Open champion, plays in the semifinals Friday against Tommy Paul of the United States.
On Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee made clear that it was intent on having athletes from Russia and Belarus at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. The move went against the stated wishes of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who lobbied President Emmanuel Macron of France on the issue earlier this week.
The I.O.C. last year recommended that sports federations not allow athletes from those countries to compete, a move it said protected Olympic sports from having the national governments in countries hosting competitions from inserting their politics into sports. Most international sports federations have followed that recommendation, but a few have recently relaxed their stances.
In a statement Wednesday, the organization said, “No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport.” The I.O.C. said it planned to pursue “a pathway for athletes’ participation in competition under strict conditions.” If it follows recent precedent, that will most likely involve requiring Russians and Belarusians to compete either under a neutral flag or no flag at all and in uniforms without their national colors.
Russian and Belarusian athletes could also compete in the Asian Games later this year, which will serve as an Olympic qualifier.
The geopolitical strife at the Australian Open hasn’t even been limited to the war in Ukraine. Karen Khachanov of Russia, who faces Stefanos Tsitsipas in a semifinal Friday, has been writing messages of support to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. The area is a long-disputed enclave that is home to tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders, where a full-scale war was fought in 2020. Since December, Azerbaijani activists have blocked a main supply route for Nagorno-Karabakh, causing a growing humanitarian crisis.
Khachanov, who is of Armenian descent and has spent extensive time in the country, said Wednesday he “just wanted to show strength and support to my people.”
Khachanov’s messages prompted officials in Azerbaijan to write to the International Tennis Federation demanding it punish Khachanov. His messages do not violate any tournament or federation rules. He said Wednesday no one had told him to stop writing them.
All this has put tennis back where it was last summer at Wimbledon. The tournament, along with the Lawn Tennis Association, prohibited players from participating in the sport’s most prestigious event and the lead-up tournaments in Britain.
The men’s and women’s tours responded by refusing to award rankings points, an attempt to essentially turn Wimbledon into an exhibition. All the Grand Slams are supposed to abide by the sport’s rules prohibiting discrimination, but not awarding points for wins at Wimbledon also turned the tour’s rankings into something of a farce.
Rybakina, a Russian through her childhood who became a citizen of Kazakhstan at 18 when the country promised to pay for her tennis training, spent the better part of two weeks talking about whether she was actually Kazakh or Russian and being asked to answer for her native country’s invasion as she stampeded to the title. Her family still lives in Russia.
She has mostly not had to answer any political questions here. The actual Russians and Belarusians received those, allowing Rybakina to focus on tennis.
“I think at Wimbledon I answered all the questions,” she said. “There is nothing to say anymore.”
Sabalenka and the other players from Belarus and Russia have not had that luxury. They know how the world and many of their competitors have viewed them and their countries.
“I just understand that it’s not my fault,” she said. “I have zero control. If I could do something, of course I would do it, but I cannot do anything.”
The political currents show no sign of letting up. Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association are discussing whether to let the players from Belarus and Russia participate this year. A decision is expected in the coming weeks. Wimbledon was the only Grand Slam to prohibit them from participating.
Djokovic, the defending Wimbledon champion and seven-time winner of the championship, has been strategizing with his fledgling players’ organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association, to get the ban lifted.
Russian players are desperate to get back to the All England Club.
“The last information that I heard was, like, maybe one week ago that the announcement will be in couple of weeks,” Andrey Rublev said after Djokovic beat him in their quarterfinal Wednesday. “We’re all waiting. Hopefully we’ll be able to play. I would love to play. Wimbledon is one of the best tournaments in our sport.”