Russian No3 Karen Khachanov caused a stir with a political statement at the Australian Open – although it was not the type the All England Club were worrying about when they banned Russians and Belarusians from last year’s Wimbledon.
Rather than getting involved in any debate around the war in Ukraine, Khachanov expressed solidarity with a small Armenian community which protests its independence, despite having been swallowed up by Azerbaijan during a brutal war three years ago.
After his previous win over Yoshihito Nishioka, Khachanov wrote a message on the camera lens: “Keep believing until the very end. Artsakh, hold on!” He had earlier written a shorter message – “Artsakh stay strong” – at the end of his victory over Frances Tiafoe.
Khachanov’s messages prompted an angry response from the Azerbaijan Tennis Federation. “Writing heartfelt wishes on the camera lens is a kind of tradition in tennis, but Khachanov abused this, using it in his dirty plans," they said in a statement.
“I have Armenian roots,” said Khachanov on Tuesday, after defeating Sebastian Korda to move into the semi-finals. “From my father's side, from my grandfather's side, even from my mum's side. To be honest, I don't want to go deeper than that. I just wanted to show strength and support to my people.”
While Russia’s Karen Khachanov plays without a flag by his name at #AusOpen, there are other flags in the stands for him: those of Artsakh (aka Nagorno-Karabakh), the embattled region which the ethnically Armenian Khachanov has urged support for during the tournament. https://t.co/57RKyFghoW pic.twitter.com/4aoZ416D6e
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 24, 2023
Khachanov was asked on Wednesday whether he had any message for the All England Club, who have suggested that they will wait until their annual spring conference in late April before making a decision on whether to admit Russians and Belarusians to this year’s Championships.
“No message,” said Khachanov. “Just whatever they decide. I mean, what can I do? I think my words would not change anything, right, in a way. So I don't want to say anything, because there is just no point."
Artsakh is the historic name for the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic – a small, mountainous region in the Caucus, which is home to a population of around 120,000 Armenians. This Christian community disputes the control of largely Muslim Azerbaijan, but the vital supply road between Armenia and the Republic has been blocked for the last five weeks – which is why Khachanov is promoting the issue now.
Back on the court, Khachanov was not required to complete his quarter-final, as Korda retired at 7-6, 6-3, 3-0 down with a wrist problem. He is not the only player excluded by Wimbledon to be enjoying a successful Australian Open.
Fellow Russian Andrey Rublev is due to play his quarter-final match against Novak Djokovic on Wednesday, while two Belarusians – Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka – reached the last eight in the women’s event.