Srdjan Djokovic, father of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, triggered a global uproar on Wednesday night for meeting with fans of his son’s at the ongoing Australian Open, some of whom were waving Russian flags and wearing the “Z” insignia associated with support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Novak Djokovic is the winningest male singles competitor in the history of the Australian Open, winning the tournament nine times. He also became one of the most controversial after a visa ordeal last year, triggered by Australia’s onerous coronavirus vaccination requirements, that ended with his imprisonment in a migrant detention center and ultimate deportation. Australian officials confirmed they had offered him a valid visa to enter the country but deported him on the grounds of fearing that his mere presence could “excite anti-vaccine sentiment.”
Srdjan Djokovic, also deported from Australia at the time, threatened to organize his son’s supporters and “take to the streets” against the Australian government at the time.
The incident occurred on Wednesday night after Djokovic defeated Russian player Andrey Rublev in straight sets, cementing a place for the Serbian player in the Australian Open semifinals. Srdjan Djokovic and Novak Djokovic’s uncle, Goran, reportedly went into a crowd of Serbian fans to thank them for supporting their son and nephew. In a circulating video of the incident, Srdjan also appears to greet fans waving Russian flags and appears to take a photo with a man wearing a “Z” shirt, a sign of support for Ukraine invasion.
According to the U.K.’s iNews, Srdjan Djokovic can be heard saying “zivejli Russiyani,” which roughly translates to “long live the Russians.”
Srdjan Djokovic made the rounds with a variety of fans on Wednesday night. Serbian media and Djokovic fan groups shared videos of the tennis dad meeting an elderly woman nicknamed “super baba” (grandma), considered one of Novak Djokovic’s most vocal “super fans” in Australia:
Srdjan Djokovic went to the #nolefam celebrations to meet Baba ,one of the most special #nolefam in Melbourne pic.twitter.com/5J31vizfP1
— NovakDjokovicFanClub (@NovakFanClub) January 26, 2023
Tennis Australia, the organization that runs the Australian Open, banned fans from bringing Russian and Belarusian flags to the tournament last week following complaints from Ukrainian spectators and politicians. The Russian news outlet Tass claimed the decision followed Ukrainian flags calling local authorities 14 times in one day to complain. That rule has been roundly ignored, however – most prominently on Wednesday, when some of the fans alleged to have met the elder Djokovic came draped in both Serbian and Russian flags, including one fan with a giant flag featuring the face of Russian leader Vladimir Putin:
Just took a walk around Melbourne Park after filing and a group of people were standing on the Rod Laver Arena steps, holding up a flag with Vladimir Putin’s face and chanting in support of Russia. pic.twitter.com/2p0LfkyVC3
— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) January 25, 2023
Tennis Australia addressed the violation of the rules, if not the controversy surrounding Srdjan Djokovic directly.
“A small group of people displayed inappropriate flags and symbols and threatened security guards following a match on Wednesday night and were evicted,” the organization said in a statement. “One patron is now assisting police with unrelated matters.”
The organization did mention that “players and their teams have been briefed and reminded of the event policy regarding flags and symbols and to avoid any situation that has the potential to disrupt,” but did not mention any player in particular.
The pro-Putin fans did not appear to be at the game for Rublev. While Rublev is Russian – resulting in Wimbledon banning him from participating in the tournament last year based on his nationality – he is the only high-profile male Russian player to clearly express opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. A year ago, at a tournament in Dubai, Rublev signed a camera, a common practice for winners of professional tennis matches, with the phrase “no war please” in Russian, rather than his name. Rublev made the statement mere days after Putin had announced his “special operation” to invade Ukraine.
Serbia maintains longstanding friendly ties with Moscow as a result of both political exchanges and their shared Orthodox Christian faith. Russia’s belligerence toward Ukraine has not had much of an apparent negative effect on their ties. A poll by the Serbian firm Demostat published in June showed Vladimir Putin to be the most popular world leader in Serbia, rated highly by 40 percent of respondents. Putin ranked far ahead of the second most popular leader, Chinese communist dictator Xi Jinping. The poll also found that more than half of Serbs would oppose Serbian entry into the European Union.
Serbians also hold negative views of the West, and NATO in particular, following the military alliance’s bombing of the country under leftist President Bill Clinton in 1999. Novak Djokovic grew up enduring those bombings and Srdjan has described his childhood in interviews with Russian state media.
“I will never forgive them for bombing,” he told Russia’s Novosti network in 2021. “He [Novak] was 12 then. A huge bomb fell in [municipality] Rakovica; all the windows shattered in our apartment in Banjica in ’99. We fell out of bed, ran into the hallway and cried, ‘God, save us – don’t give us away. These are traumas that last a lifetime.”
Srdjan Djokovic made his remark threatening street warfare with Australia in an interview with Russian state outlet Sputnik in 2022.
“I have no clue what’s going on. They’ve kept my son in captivity for five hours now,” he said following the younger Djokovic’s detention in Melbourne before the Australian government confirmed his whereabouts. “If they don’t let him go in half an hour, we’ll gather in the streets, this is a battle for everyone.”
Serbian fans in Melbourne ultimately did organize street protests that prompted police to attack them with tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
Novak Djokovic has largely abstained from commenting on politics. His most high-profile statement on the Ukraine invasion occurred last April when Wimbledon announced a ban on Russian and Belarusian players. Djokovic raised his voice to object to the blanket ban, which affected anti-war Rublev.
“I will always condemn war, I will never support war being myself a child of war,” Djokovic said at the time. “I know how much emotional trauma it leaves. In Serbia, we all know what happened in 1999. In the Balkans, we have had many wars in recent history. However, I cannot support the decision of Wimbledon, I think it is crazy.”
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