The Australian Open offers reminders that sport reflects society

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic he returned to the Australian Openwhich is newsworthy, yes, mainly because of the reason he wasn’t in the tournament a year ago: he wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19.

Another player – albeit a lower-ranked, less successful and less famous one, Camila Giorgi – has attracted attention due to published reports in her home country of Italy about whether she received a false vaccination certificate from a doctor under investigation to allow her to travel.

“Unbelievable,” said Giorgi’s father, Sergio, when the subject was the only one discussed during her press conference at Melbourne Park on Tuesday. “I have no questions about tennis.”

Ah, welcome to the modern world. Tennis, in particular, and sports, in general, cannot help but reflect society. And that means athletes, spectators, and the people who run leagues and events have to contend with, and perhaps confront, any prevailing global touchpoints at any given time.

Pandemic. War. Mental health. #Me too. Armed violence. And so on.

“There are always those who say: ‘Politics and social issues, sports or entertainment should not mix. They should be separated.’ But that’s not reality either, because you’re dealing with people who are affected by these things. And so, whether you like it or not, you have to be involved,” said WTA CEO and President Steve Simon. “And it guides you and forces you to make decisions that you might not traditionally want to make.”

More than a year ago, Simon announced that the women’s professional tennis tour would remove all of its tournaments from China out of concern for the welfare of Peng Shuai, the Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official of sexual assault.

Simon wanted a full and transparent investigation into her allegations and a chance for the tour to communicate with Peng – none of which happened – and so he still won’t commit to bringing WTA events back to China.

With that in mind, along with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Simon said, “I hope we’ll go into a more peaceful 2023 with a little less of this.”

When Aryna Sabalenka, the No. 5 seed of Belarus at this year’s first Grand Slam, was asked on Tuesday about Tennis Australia’s new policy preventing spectators from bringing flags representing her country or Russia — which invaded Ukraine almost a year ago — to the matches, so as not to be a distraction, was somewhat surprised by her answer.

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

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

It is only natural that anything that could be a collective concern becomes relevant in the field of sports. Especially in such an international activity as tennis: at the Australian Open, players from more than 40 countries play in individual games.

“Sports and tennis can play a role in everything that happens in the world. “Tennis has players from all continents, tournaments on all continents and it’s seen all over the world on TV,” said Casper Ruud, a Norwegian who was runner-up at the French Open and US Open in 2022 and is the second seed 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 of the political debates and the war in Ukraine. Tennis stood well on the ground.”

One example: Iga Swiatek, the 21-year-old top-ranked player from Poland, wears a blue-and-yellow ribbon — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — on the hat she wears while playing to show solidarity with the country. She also hosted an exhibition event to raise money for humanitarian efforts, as well as various tournaments.

Another example: Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old from Florida who was runner-up to Swiatek at last year’s French Open, used her platform to speak out about gun violence and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and other topics.

And one more thing: Naomi Osaka, a 25-year-old who was born in Japan and moved to the United States with her family 3 years ago, wore masks with the names of black victims of police violence during the US Open 2020 title race. The following year, she helped spark a public and widespread conversation about the importance of protecting one’s mental health by revealing that she had struggled with depression and anxiety for years.

“Every time there is a global problem, be it good or bad, we definitely feel it in the world of tennis, because one of our colleagues, one of our peers, will be affected by it. We have players from all over. We play everywhere,” said Felix Auger-Aliassime, the 22-year-old Canadian seeded No. 6 in Melbourne. “You have 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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