MELBOURNE, Australia — For Novak Djokovic, everything was going according to plan. Even better than that, by many measures.
He had charmed a country that had kicked him out a year ago over his refusal to be vaccinated. The soreness in his hamstring at the beginning of the tournament had all but disappeared, allowing him to look nearly invincible in the crucial second week of the tournament. He appeared on a glide pattern to yet another Australian Open men’s singles title and the 22nd Grand Slam title of his career.
And then his father, Srdjan Djokovic troubled the waters.
Djokovic, Serbia’s favorite son and most famous citizen, will play for his 10th Australian Open championship on Sunday against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, but the glide pattern is officially over. He defeated Tommy Paul in straight sets Friday, 7-5, 6-1, 6-2, in front of a hostile crowd that notably did not include his father, who has been at all his other matches during this tournament.
Srdjan Djokovic on Thursday appeared in a video with fans outside Rod Laver Arena, some of whom were holding Russian flags, and next to a man wearing a shirt with the “Z” symbol that is viewed as support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the tournament’s ban on Russian and Belarusian flags.
Serbia has close political and cultural ties to Russia, and support for the Russian invasion is significant there, unlike in most of the rest of Europe. The incident made headlines worldwide, sparking the ire of Ukraine’s government and sending both the tournament and Djokovic’s team scrambling to control the damage.
Early Friday, Srdjan Djokovic released a statement saying he had been celebrating with his son’s fans on Wednesday night and did not mean to cause an international incident. “My family has lived through the horror of war, and we wish only for peace,” the statement said. “So there is no disruption to tonight’s semifinal for my son or for the other player, I have chosen to watch from home.”
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.
- 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.
Hours later, Tennis Australia, which had been criticized for not acting more swiftly to snuff out demonstrations that might incite violence, released its own statement, saying that it had worked with police to remove the demonstrators and spoken with players and their teams about the importance of not engaging in any activity that causes distress or disruption. The organization noted Srdjan Djokovic’s decision not to attend the match.
“Tennis Australia stands with the call for peace and an end to war and violent conflict in Ukraine,” the statement said.
After the match, Djokovic said his father’s actions had been misinterpreted, that he had no intention of offering support to Russia and the war.
“We are against the war, we never will support any violence or any war,” he said. “We know how devastating that is for the family, for people in any country that is going through the war.”
He said he and his father decided together that it would be best for him not to attend the semifinal but he hoped he would be there watching him in the final on Sunday.
“It wasn’t pleasant not to have him in the box,” he said.
Only Djokovic knows how the incident affected his play, but he was erratic early against Paul, the first-time Grand Slam semifinalist from the United States. Djokovic jumped out to an early 5-1 lead, but after he complained to the chair umpire about a fan who was harassing him he fell into a temporary funk. He dropped the next four games as the crowd rallied behind the American underdog and taunted the defending champion. Boos echoed through the stadium after Djokovic steadied himself to win the first set, 7-5.
Djokovic responded by putting his hand to his ear and waving his hands as if to say, “bring it on,” which spurred the clumps of Serbian fans who attend Djokovic’s matches no matter where in the world he is playing to drown out the howls.
The atmosphere is likely to be even more spirited on Sunday against Tsitsipas, who is a local favorite because of Australia’s significant Greek population, among the largest in the world outside of Greece and the United States. It will be a rematch of the French Open final in 2021. There, Djokovic came back from two sets down to win his second French Open singles title.
Tsitsipas has struggled to recover from that loss but has been playing arguably his best tennis since then at this tournament. Whoever wins will be the world’s top-ranked player.
On Friday, he beat Karen Khachanov of Russia in four sets, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3. At 4-4 in the second set, Tsitsipas turned a tight match, scrambling for a series of overheads and winning the 22-shot rally with a rolling forehand winner to break Khachanov’s serve, then clinched the set in the next game. Despite wobbling in the third set with the finish line in sight, Tsitsipas came out strong in the fourth set and cruised into his second Grand Slam final, a test he said he has never been more ready for, especially with the Greek-Australian Mark Philippoussis helping his father coach.
“I just see no downside or negativity in what I’m trying to do out there,” he said after beating Khachanov. “Even if it doesn’t work, I’m very optimistic and positive about any outcome, any opponent that I have to face. This is something that has been sort of lacking in my game.”
Djokovic has not struggled with internal negativity in years, with good reason. He has won four of the last six Grand Slams he has played and is often most dangerous when facing adversity. The negativity he has had to deal with is external, whether it’s criticism for his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, or his requests that fans who try to disrupt him be removed from his matches, which has happened several times during this tournament.
“It’s not pleasant for me to go through this with all the things that I had to deal with last year and this year in Australia,” he said. “It’s not something that I want or need.”
There may be plenty of criticism at Sunday’s final. Chances are, Djokovic will be ready for it.