AO 23 Australian Open

Karen Khachanov finds his voice, not just his tennis

Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent

Karen Khachanov went under the radar in the initial rounds at the 2023 Australian Open. Following his win over an in-form Frances Tiafoe in the third round, Khachanov gained more traction with his presence in the draw. Two more rounds later, the Russian became a semifinalist in Melbourne for the first time. At the same time, he drew more attention to himself for talking about a political situation that has been brewing in the region of Artsakh.

Also called Nagorno-Karabakh, Artsakh is a disputed region that lies within Azerbaijan but whose population is majorly Armenian. Ruled by the Republic of Artsakh, which is largely unrecognised in the world, the place’s geopolitical importance is due to the Lachin Corridor. The corridor is the sole road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. It’s also the reason why unrest is brewing in the region. For the last six weeks, Azerbaijan has blocked off the corridor, thereby preventing public access to basic goods and supplies, including medical and gas supplies from Armenia.

Khachanov, whose ethnic background is Armenian, posted two separate messages on the lens of the television camera after winning two matches in Melbourne. The first time he wrote, “Artsakh, Stay Strong!!!” The second time, after his round-of-16 win over Yoshihito Nishioka, the World No. 20 posted, “Keep believing all the way until the end!!! Artsakh, Stay Strong!!!”

The 26-year-old’s statements prompted the Azerbaijani Tennis Federation (ATF) to write a letter to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) asking them to punish him for taking such a stance. When told about the ATF’s letter, Khachanov remained steadfast in his decision to speak up.

“I have Armenian roots. From my father’s side, from my grandfather’s side, even from my mom’s side. I’m half Armenian. To be honest, I don’t want to go deeper than that, and I just wanted to show strength and support to my people. That’s it,” he told the press after coming through against Sebastian Korda in the Australian Open quarterfinal.

Among all the words Khachanov uttered that day, the ones that stand out the most are, “strength and support”.

Tennis players, like other athletes, depend on strength and support to nurture the symbiotic relationship they share with their fans. The latter draw strength and support from tennis players’ professional perseverance and fortitude and can use it to overcome difficulties in their lives. For tennis players, their fans’ presence sees them through the toughest patches of their careers. Given this mutual exchange of goodwill between two parties who (generally) don’t even know the other on a personal level, in a relationship which continues to grow as the years pass, it’s only fair that both players and fans know each is accountable to the other.

For players, standing up to confront real-world problems – especially where their interests are vested – is one way to own up to their responsibility to the larger communities they represent and play for. It’s also a way for them to demonstrate their accountability, not only as sportspersons but also as citizens.

Likewise, there’s also a certain expectation that sportspersons take a stand, as Russian players Andrey Rublev, Daria Kasatkina and Daniil Medvedev did when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2022. Consider the way Rublev and Kasatkina continue to speak up even now, calling out the wrongfulness of the war.

This, in turn, brings the subject to politics and its uncomfortable coexistence with global sport.

Simply put, on sensitive issues like war, there’s nothing political about players unhesitatingly opening up about it, except when it’s seen through the lens of the political class. On the contrary, in case of such events, if players were not to take a stand, their silence would be tantamount to alignment with political notions. Such would be the perspective of not just the politicos, but also the public.

Silence and speech are both political responses. One is simply more noticeable than the other.

Among those who do make themselves and their opinions heard are either unmindful of the political ramifications that come their way, as Khachanov was, or are unheeding as Rublev and Kasatkina are. Not that it matters to them, either way. Nor should it matter, in any case.

Verbal declarations on weighty international issues carry weight when made by those with a bigger reach and a much louder voice than the rest of us. Athletes certainly have the megaphone, the visibility and the reach to spread their message quickly and powerfully. As such, with the stance they take, have the wherewithal to create more awareness on topics that concern all of us as a global community. To such an end, there can’t be anything better than athletes – tennis players, among them – contributing to the communal “greater good.”

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