Crowd violence flares at Open tennis

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The Independent Online

For the second time in three years, ethnic violence has marred the Australian Open.

Police Inspector Chris Duthie said about 30 Bosnian and Serbian youths were ejected from Melbourne Park after a chair-throwing brawl today. Two men were charged with riotous behavior and a third was fined on the spot.

The two groups of youths — many wrapped in their national flags — had been sitting peacefully about 10 yards from each other in an outdoor courtyard, watching defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia play Bosnian-born American Amer Delic .

Excitement built in the tiebreaker, and Djokovic won 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) to reach the fourth round.

Within moments, water bottles were flying both ways, followed quickly by plastic chairs.

Other spectators quickly scrambled away from the loud, angry scuffle but it took a couple of minutes for security and police to arrive.

One Bosnian woman was hit in the head by a chair and fell to the ground before stumbling away on the arms of friends as security officers and police intervened to break up the rivals. Victoria state police said the girl had only minor injuries and was not pursuing charges.

"The matter was dealt with very quickly and efficiently by the police and we expect no more problems at this stage," said Duthie, the Victoria police official. "You can't stop everything happening but we've got plans in place to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen."

Despite regular tension between Serbs, Bosnians and Croats at sporting events, Duthie said the police would not prevent anyone from coming into the park.

"We're not stopping anything but unruly and unacceptable behavior," he said.

Those suspected of participating in the skirmish were led away by police, who took the Bosnians and Serbs to different areas for questioning. The lawn area at Melbourne Park was left strewn with at least a dozen broken chairs, plastic bottles and empty food containers.

"They started it. They threw the first chair and knocked our girl down and kept throwing things at her," said a Bosnian man who was led away by police before he could identify himself.

One angry Serb teenager, who did not want to be identified and wrapped his flag around his head to avoid the television cameras, accused the Bosnians of bringing "weapons" such as a dart gun into the grounds, pointing to his friend's wrist, which was bleeding from three puncture wounds.

Australian Open organizers had no immediate comment.

Throughout the tournament, Delic's supporters have annoyed his opponents with their often clamorous enthusiasm. After his first-round match, the father of American challenger Taylor Dent complained that Delic's fans were loud, rude and insulting. In the second round, against Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu, passing Serbian fans entered the stadium to cajole Delic's Bosnian supporters, leading to crosscourt chanting that eventually led to the expulsion of some fans.

Delic apologized for the disruption of the Mathieu match and appealed on his blog for his supporters to leave politics at home in what he knew could be an ethnically volatile match with Djokovic.

"I'm really sad to hear about that," Delic said of today's scuffle. "There's absolutely no place for that here. This is a tennis match."

Djokovic said he had no control over what his supporters did and that he had to remain focused on his game.

"People don't get many chances to see their professional athletes from their countries," Djokovic said of the enthusiasm of some of the fans. "This is probably the only opportunity they can see them, and they support them. This is something that makes Australian Open different, I think, from the other Grand Slams."

Friday's clash comes two years after similar violent fan skirmishes between Serbian and Croatian supporters at the Australian Open. More than 150 people were ejected by police that day.

Australia has a large population of Balkan immigrants and sports events are occasionally used to display the ethnic rivalries.