Australian Open offers reminders that sports reflect society

Jan 16, 2023, 6:49 PM | Updated: Jan 17, 2023, 8:51 am
Novak Djokovic of Serbia signs autographs after defeating Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain in their...

Novak Djokovic of Serbia signs autographs after defeating Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain in their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

              Iga Swiatek of Poland reacts after winning a point against Jule Niemeier of Germany during their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
              Novak Djokovic of Serbia signs autographs after defeating Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain in their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
              A Russian flag is seen during the first round match between Kamilla Rakhimova of Russia and Kateryna Baindl of Ukraine is played at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic is back at the Australian Open, which is newsworthy, yes, mainly because of the reason he was not in the tournament a year ago: He is not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Another player — albeit one who is lower-ranked, less successful and less famous, Camila Giorgi — drew scrutiny because of published reports in her home country of Italy about whether she got a fake vaccine certificate from a doctor under investigation that would allow her to travel.

“Unbelievable,” Giorgi’s father, Sergio, said when that subject was the only one addressed during her news conference at Melbourne Park on Tuesday. “No questions about tennis.”

Ah, welcome to the modern world. Tennis, in particular, and sports, in general, can’t help but reflect society. And that means athletes, spectators and the folks who run leagues and events must contend with, and perhaps confront, whatever the prevailing global touchpoints are at any given time.

A pandemic. A war. Mental health. #MeToo. Gun violence. And so on.

“There’s always those that say, ‘Politics and social issues, and sports or entertainment, shouldn’t mix. They should be separate.’ But that’s not reality, either, because you’re dealing with people who are being affected by those things. And so, like it or not, you have to be involved with it,” WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon said. “And it does direct and force you to make decisions that maybe you traditionally wouldn’t want to do.”

More than a year ago, Simon declared the women’s professional tennis tour would remove all of its tournaments from China over concerns about the well-being of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official of sexual assault.

Simon wanted a full and transparent inquiry into her allegations and a chance for the tour to communicate with Peng — none of which has happened — and so he still will not commit to bringing WTA events back to China.

With an eye to that matter, along with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Simon said: “I’m hopeful that we are moving on to a quieter 2023 with a little fewer of these.”

When Aryna Sabalenka, a Belarusian seeded No. 5 at the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, was asked Tuesday about a new Tennis Australia policy preventing spectators from bringing flags representing her country or Russia — which invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago — to matches, so as not to cause disruptions, her response was a bit surprising.

“I really thought that … sport (has) nothing to do with politics,” Sabalenka said.

This from someone who, like all players from Russia or Belarus, was barred from competing at Wimbledon last year because of the war, leading the tennis tours to take the unprecedented step of withholding ranking points from that prestigious event.

It is only natural that whatever might be a collective concern would become relevant within the realm of sports. Especially in an activity as international as tennis: There are players from more than 40 countries in the singles fields at the Australian Open.

“Sports and tennis can have a role in anything going on around the world. Tennis has players from every continent, tournaments in every continent and it’s seen worldwide on TV,” said Casper Ruud, a Norwegian who was the runner-up at the French Open and U.S. Open in 2022 and is seeded second at the Australian Open. “Tennis players have a voice, and I think they’ve used it well over the past year, especially in terms of some political debates and the war in Ukraine. Tennis has stood its ground well.”

One example: Iga Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland who is ranked No. 1, has been wearing a blue-and-yellow ribbon — the colors of Ukraine’s flag — on the hat she wears while playing to show solidarity with that country. She also hosted an exhibition event to raise money for humanitarian efforts there, as have various tournaments.

Another example: Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old from Florida who was the runner-up to Swiatek at last year’s French Open, has taken advantage of her platform to make public statements about gun violence and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and other topics.

And one more: Naomi Osaka, a 25-year-old who was born in Japan and moved to the United States with her family at age 3, wore masks bearing the names of Black victims of police violence during her run to the 2020 U.S. Open title. The next year, she helped spark a public and widespread conversation about the importance of protecting one’s mental health by revealing she had dealt with depression and anxiety for years.

“Every time there’s a global issue, whether it’s good or bad, we definitely feel it in the tennis world, because one of our colleagues, one of our peers, is going to be affected by it. We have players from everywhere. We play everywhere,” said Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 22-year-old Canadian who is seeded No. 6 in Melbourne. “You need to have a sense of empathy for people everywhere and the tennis ecosystem is a great representation, on a small scale, of the world.”


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Australian Open offers reminders that sports reflect society