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Tennis crowd is pepper sprayed

One Australian Open fan says police overreacted, but officials back the action. Ten are treated.

January 16, 2008|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia -- His eyes were puffy and he felt a weird aftertaste in his throat today.

Hardly the usual two things one feels the morning after going to a tennis match. But who would have guessed pepper spray and the Australian Open would be used in the same sentence?

Certainly not Melbourne lawyer Peter Katsambanis, who found himself, and his teenage son, caught up in what he called a "complete overreaction" by local police and "subsequent horror show."

The Australian Open, known as one of the most accessible and typically laid-back of the four majors, came under fire, and scrutiny, when local police used pepper spray Tuesday night on rowdy Greek supporters watching a first-round match between Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, last year's finalist, and Greek qualifier Konstantinos Economidis.

The drama unfolded at the third show court here, as their match was interrupted between five and 10 minutes. Spectator and police accounts varied wildly.

"It's more of a feeling of being caught up in something you didn't expect," Katsambanis told The Times in a telephone interview. "When I left home, this was the last thing I expected to be confronted with. Tennis was meant to be genteel, quiet and . . . "

The controversy dominated the local news and landed on the front page of both newspapers here, the Age and the Herald Sun.

Victoria police Superintendent John Cooke said only 10 people were treated, but other eyewitnesses put the number of people affected closer to 40. Economidis said in a post-match interview that he and Gonzalez were both affected by the pepper spray, adding he was saddened and "disappointed for both of us."

But Katsambanis' first-person account gave credibility to the higher number. He and his 13-year-old son Ross were about "20 to 30 meters" away from the incident and said, from what he could tell, the crowd behavior was no more extreme than anything he had viewed at sporting events around the world, including college basketball games in the United States.

"Why should innocent spectators be sprayed with the capsicum spray?" he asked. "What scared us more than anything else was where the blokes were, the exits were closed and they couldn't get out. There was a cascading effect. You could have easily had a stampede. It could have turned into a catastrophe."

Cooke, in an interview with ABC radio, denied that police overreacted and said they would have handled the incident the same way.

"Absolutely," he told ABC's Jon Faine. "I can tell you only 10 people were treated. I don't believe any of those 10 were the intended targets. It's not a case of collateral damage. As I said, we had three people who were directly exposed and those were the people threatening our [police] members.

"This was part of a much larger group. One of them threw a punch at one of our members."

Said Faine: "The police can't deal with a bloke who threw a punch?"

Police and tournament security have been on heightened notice after violence marred the 2007 tournament when Croatia and Serbia supporters clashed and about 150 fans were ejected. Officials recently said there would be a "zero tolerance" of fan misbehavior.

This afternoon, tournament officials continued to back the police, holding a news conference.

"We here at the Australian Open, Tennis Australia, have full confidence in the action the police took," tournament director Craig Tiley said. "We said from the beginning that we will just not accept behavior that is going to disturb, by a handful of people, that is going to disturb and disrupt the enjoyment of others."

But the extreme measure was seemingly unprecedented for tennis.

Gonzalez has been in the middle of heated battles in his long career, playing Davis Cup in such venues as Moscow, Ramat Hasharon, Israel, and Harare, Zimbabwe. He had never played a match when police were moved to take such action.

"I see it was very noisy from both sides, but the police came in," he said. "I don't know exactly what happened with them. I saw that they threw spray. I know nothing else."

He said it had been "fun to play like that," comparing it to a Davis Cup atmosphere. Gonzalez did tell reporters, in Spanish, that one fan yelled a pejorative word, at him, also in Spanish. "It's nothing that bad," Gonzalez said. "I mean, they're fans.'

As for Katsambanis, he won't be coming back to Melbourne Park any time soon.

"I still feel offended. I don't think I'll be gracing the courts of the Australian Open for a long time," he said. "I don't believe the police or the tournament organizers have the safety of their patrons as a priority."

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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