The 10 greatest Australian Open controversies: ‘No-Vaxx’ scandal, McEnroe default and Margaret Court protests
The Australian Open has a history littered with controversies – perhaps the biggest coming before the 2022 tournament even began.
An unvaccinated Novak Djokovic landed in Australia as tournament favourite and confident he had obtained the required medical exemptions to play.
But after touching down, the three-time reigning champion was detained and questioned by border officials in Melbourne and his visa was cancelled.
He was taken to a immigration detention hotel where he was eventually booted out of Australia at the behest of Immigration Minister Alex Hawke.
In court documents, Hawke said Djokovic was ‘perceived by some as a talisman of a community of anti-vaccine sentiment’ and his presence in the tournament could lead to ‘civil unrest’.
Hewitt’s bust-up with Argentine accused of spitting
Lleyton Hewitt was a fierce competitor and never dodged a verbal battle with his rivals – pushing the limits with his self-motivation and often leaving a sour taste.
In third round of the 2005 tournament the former Wimbledon and US Open winner was locked in a spiteful match against Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela.
At a change of ends in the fourth set the TV cameras caught Chela appearing to spit towards Hewitt. He later admitted he had been upset at Hewitt’s anctics but denied spitting at the Aussie – although he then apologised and was fined $2600.
Hewitt had screamed ‘C’mon!’ when Chela banged a loose shot into the net and out of play on serve in the fifth game. The Argentine then launched a serve long and aimed at Hewitt and sprayed his spit towards the Aussie as Hewitt took his seat at the change of ends.
Hewitt’s coach Roger Rasheed was later involved in a dust-up with Chela’s entourage after Hewitt’s four-set win.
Petr Korda’s positive test
Six months after Korda won the 1998 edition – celebrating with cartwheels and scissor-kicks – he tested positive to the performance-enhancing drug Nandrolone at Wimbledon.
The International Tennis Federation did not immediately suspend him because it believed his excuse – that he didn’t know how the steroid got into his body.
Thankfully tennis has smartened up its game around PEDs since then.
“I wish to state categorically that I am not a drugs cheat and would never seek to obtain a competitive advantage over my fellow professionals by such means,” Korda said.
“This allegation came as a tremendous shock and caused considerable distress to me and my family.
“From a professional standpoint my performances since August suffered, as my recent results have shown… I am delighted that the committee has cleared my name and that I am free to carry on playing and competing.”
Australian sports doctor Peter Larkins was among those who were sceptical.
“How often have we heard the story, I didn’t know where it came from?” Larkins said.
“Elite athletes have a lot of people wanting to help them… maybe he could have been that naive.”
The losing finalist in 1988, Marcelo Rios, sought to have Korda investigated for doping at the AO and the title given to him, but Korda returned a year later as champion, where the issue dogged him before his third-round exit.
He later received a one-year ban and retired.
Icons protest against Margaret Court
At the 2020 tournament, two of the sport’s true greats – John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova – joined forces to demand Margaret Court Arena be renamed because of her homophobic views.
Court, Australia’s most successful tennis player with 24 career Grand Slam tournament wins, has been a vocal critic of LGBTQIA+ rights and same-sex marriage, opposing reforms in 2012.
Court’s success saw the second show court at Melbourne Park named in her honour but McEnroe and Navratilova protested for the court to be renamed in honour of Evonne Goolagong.
Tennis Australia found the duo guilty of breaking ‘safety protocols’ and demanded apologies, which duly came through obviously gritted teeth.
“I got in trouble. I am sorry. I broke protocol. I had no idea there was this kind of protocol,” Navratilova said.
“Admittedly, I was never one to study the rule book carefully or, for that matter, even at times abide by the rules,” McEnroe added in a statement.
“For that I apologise to Tennis Australia and recognise and appreciate the great job they have done to make the Australian Open a great event for the fans, players and myself.”
Sorry, not sorry.
McEnroe defaulted out
Before he became a Court court protester, McEnroe was known as “superbrat” for his constant arguing with officials.
In 1990 he became the first man since 1963 to be disqualified in a Grand Slam event for misconduct when he was defaulted out of his fourth-round match against Mikael Pernfors.
In the third set, during a changeover, McEnroe stood in front of a lineswoman and glared at her for what he perceived was a bad call. The chair umpire, Gerry Armstrong, gave him a conduct code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct.
In the fourth set, McEnroe, received another code violation for smashing his racquet to the ground. He swore at Armstrong, who defaulted him under instruction from tournament official Ken Farrar.
Prior to 1990, players were penalised in four stages – warning, point, game, match. But a new rule had taken effect that was only three stages, eliminating the game penalty. McEnroe later said he was not aware of this change.
“It was just one little four-letter word,” McEnroe said afterwards. “The guy could have let me off.”
Later he wrote: “Of course I have to take responsibility for the whole incident. I truly believe, though, that if I had known the new rule, I would have contained myself. I sometimes went off the rails, but I always knew where I stood.”
Did Federer get a leg up?
Everyone loved Roger Federer, right? Maybe a little too much, according to some of his rivals in 2018.
He claimed a 20th Grand Slam that year but the victory march was tainted by claims of favouritism and an easy ride through the draw.
The Swiss star only played once during the searing heat of the day and organisers opted to close the roof for his final against Marin Cilic, in 37.7 degree heat, even though they hadn’t enacted a heat policy for similar temperatures earlier in the tournament – and the policy requited 40 degrees to trigger a roof closure.
Federer went on to win in five sets.
Pat Cash declared the call benefitted Federer.
“It’s an outdoor tournament like Wimbledon,” Cash said.
“Why is the roof closed? The way Roger plays, he swings so hard at the ball and takes it so early, any wind or variation of the ball moving will take it away from him. It’s why he’s one of the best players ever indoors.
Former US Open finalist Greg Rusedski opined: “Absolutely ridiculous that the roof is closed for the Australian Open. GS are outdoor events. Yes, it’s hot but the court is under shade and an evening match.”
Novak’s dad sits one out after Russian protests
During Novak Djokovic’s quarter=final match against Andrey Rublev last year. fans in the stands displayed pro-Russia symbols in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
One spectator removed a t-shirt that demonstrated support of Djokovic to reveal another with the ‘Z’ symbol underneath – seen as supportive of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
After the match, fans stood on the Rod Laver Arena stairs and held a Russian flag with Putin’s face, chanting in support of Russia.
Djokovic’s father Srdjan was photographed with the fans, but claimed he was unaware of the significance of meeting them. He opted to stay away from the Serbian’s semi-final.
“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,” Srdjan Djokovic said.
“My family has lived through the horror of war, and we wish only for peace.”
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Late night blues
Late nights and epic contests have long been a feature of the Australian Open – in 2003 an Andy Roddick-Younes El Aynaoui night match took four hours and 59 minutes, ending after a 21-19 fifth set won by the American.
In 2008, a match between Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis ended at 4:34am – the latest at the Australian Open.
Last year Andy Murray stayed up to 4.05am to see off Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis, but was cooked for his next match.
“I don’t know who it’s beneficial for,” Murray said of the late finish.
“Rather than the discussion being about an epic Murray-Kokkinakis match it ends in a bit of a farce.
“If I had a ball kid who is coming home at 5am I’m snapping at that; it’s not beneficial for them, the umpires, the officials, I don’t think it’s amazing for the fans or good for players.”
Where there’s smoke there’s ire
As Australia burned during the 2019/20 summer, Nike was flamed for a tasteless advertisement, and players succumbed to horrible conditions at the 2020 tournament.
Slovenian tennis player Dalila Jakupovic abandoned a qualifying match after dropping to her knees in a coughing fit as smoke from bushfires hung over Melbourne.
“I was really scared that I would collapse. I never had breathing problems. I actually like heat. But I just couldn’t breathe anymore and I just fell on the floor,” she said.
Others also struggled, with Eugenie Bouchard and Bernard Tomic also requiring medical attention.
Meanwhile, Nike copped it for a tone deaf ad for their new tennis attire range.
“Melbourne also tracks the hottest temperatures of any of tennis’ four majors,” their ad claimed.
“Averaging more than 100 degrees (37 degrees Celsius), the heat challenges players and, in turn, NikeCourt’s apparel designers to outduel the fiery conditions.”
Azarenka dodges gamesmanship accusations
2013 champion Victoria Azarenka was accused of taking a dubious medical timeout in the final moments of her semi-final win over Sloane Stephens.
Azarenka was up 6-1, 5-3 when Stephens saved five match points before breaking back.
Back on serve at 5-4, and heading to their chairs for the changeover, Azarenka called for the trainer and then left the court for 10 minutes.
Azarenka denied indulging in gamesmanship.
“I had to unlock my rib, which was causing my back problem. I should have called the trainer a little bit before that, when I got to the point that I couldn’t really breathe. The timing, yeah, it was my bad,” she said later.
In her immediate on court interview she told a different story.
“I had nearly the worst choke of the year,” “she said, without mentioning her injured rib.