Novak Djokovic plunged into fresh controversy and he needs to fix it quickly
What comes next in the latest Novak Djokovic controversy may not be pretty.
After a career littered with controversial moments, a sportsman who polarises opinion like few before him is now back in a familiar spotlight that he would rather avoid.
There was already controversy over the presence of Russian supporters of Vladimir Putin in the stands at the Australian Open, with tournament officials under pressure to remove those who created headlines around the world.
A group gathered on the steps outside Rod Laver Arena following Djokovic’s quarter-final victory over Russian Andrey Rublev holding Russian flags, one of which bore the face of Putin, and chanting “Serbia, Russia”.
This story was already capturing International headlines, with Ukrainian tennis player Alex Dolgopolov highlighting the images on his Twitter feed.
Yet when Djokovic’s father Srdjan planted himself at the heart of this story by posing with a flag featuring Putin’s image, this story moved to a whole new level.
Whatever side of this story you may take, Srdjan’s headline-grabbing moment at a time when his son is trying to win the Australian Open is reckless and ill-judged, even if it was inadvertent.
In a statement released by the tennis star’s representatives, Mr Djokovic senior said: “I am here to support my son only. I had no intention of causing such headlines or disruption.
“I was outside with Novak’s fans as I have done after all of my son’s matches to celebrate his wins and take pictures with them. I had no intention of being caught up in this.
“My family has lived through the horror of war, and we wish only for peace. So there is no disruption to tonight’s semi-final for my son or for the other player, I have chosen to watch from home.
“I wish for a great match and I will be cheering for my son, as always.”
In a statement, Tennis Australia said: “After the events of Wednesday night, we acted swiftly to work with police and our security teams to have the instigators of the protest removed from the venue.
“Throughout the event we’ve spoken with players and their teams about the importance of not engaging in any activity that causes distress or disruption.
“Mr Srdjan Djokovic has issued a statement confirming that he will not attend tonight’s semi-final.
“We will continue to strive for the safety of fans at the event and reiterate our position banning flags from Belarus and Russia.
“Tennis Australia stands with the call for peace and an end to war and violent conflict in Ukraine.”
Djokovic is the overwhelming favourite to win a tenth Australian Open title on Sunday, but the 21-time Grand Slam would have wanted to play in that final without another cloud hovering over him.
This time last year, Djokovic was at the heart of another international scandal, as he was deported from Australia after his visa was revoked on the grounds that he was a danger to public health over his refusal to take a Covid-19 vaccine.
His father was among his most vocal supporters during that crisis, with some of his comments considered to be more than a little inflammatory at that time.
Yet this storm could have an equally damaging impact on his son, who will take most of the heat created by this stand by Djokovic Sr.
While he has received a warm welcome on his return to Melbourne – aside from a few very vocal hecklers during his matches – Novak will now be fired into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons once again.
And when he sits down for his post-match news conference after he inevitably beats American Tommy Paul in his semi-final on Friday, he will face a barrage of questions over whether he supports his father’s decision to stand with a pro-Russian/Putin flag.
He will be asked to condemn his father for his actions and if he doesn’t do that, the perception will be that he supports his father’s (and therefore Russia’s) invasion of Ukraine.
Politics and sport are always uncomfortable bedfellows, yet this is a story Djokovic will struggle to win unless he suggests his father made a mistake by posing for this photograph.
If he doesn’t do that, the Australian crowds could turn against him as quickly as they decided to offer him their support after last year’s deportation nightmare.
The Djokovic family should be in Melbourne to support their son and even if they hold strong political and moral views, they should be closeted until Novak gets a chance to create another piece of tennis story.
What Srdjan has done is ensure the Djokovic story is laced with acrimony and animosity once again and the celebrity son in this family needs to do all he can to clean up the mess created by his father as quickly as possible.
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