Keeping it light Down Under

Soccer-style chanting from the stands in tennis is usually reserved for the Davis Cup. But increasingly, the Australian Open -- the so-called Happy Slam -- is being marred by the threat of crowd trouble.

Wednesday saw insults traded between Serbian and Croatian supporters during a second-round men’s match won by Marin Cilic, a Croat, against Janko Tipsarevic, a Serb.

A strong police and security presence helped to ensure there was no violence at courtside, although arrests were made at a nearby bar as tempers flared afterward.

There is a fierce rivalry between ex-pats and descendants of the countries which used to form part of Yugoslavia. Australia has a significant population of Serbs and Croats, and there were ugly incidents between fans of those countries at Melbourne Park two years ago.

Tipsarevic specifically asked for his match with Cilic to be moved to a show court so that aggravation would not spill over.

Though there were no flying fists and decorum between points was generally upheld, songs laced with nationalistic insults were hurled to and fro.

"Both the Serbs and the Croats were a little bit incorrect singing songs that had nothing to do with the tennis but to do with the history we have between each other," said Tipsarevic. "There was a little bit of rudeness towards the players, but what I liked was there was no clapping between the first and second serve, or mobile phones ringing when there was an important point and that kind of thing."

Two years ago, Serbian and Croatian fans clashed angrily amid violent scenes at the Australian Open. Last year, police used pepper spray to break up a disturbance between Greek and Chilean fans.

All this leaves organizers in a quandary, wondering how to best deal with the threat of hooligan-style behavior while ensuring enjoyment for the rest of the crowd.

Flags, painted faces and a carnival atmosphere prevail at this tournament, and 99 percent of matches see no trouble whatsoever.

Further meetings between Serbs and Croats at this year’s event are highly unlikely. All four remaining Croatian men are in the top half, while defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia is on the other side of the draw. No Croatian women are left standing in the singles.

Tennis bosses generally love to see passions being stirred, but with rumors of the Australian Open’s future in its current location being in jeopardy, politically charged incidents do nothing to help ensure that the tournament stays in Melbourne.

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