Karen Khachanov defended himself Tuesday after his support at the Australian Open for a contested Armenian enclave sparked a strongly worded complaint from Azerbaijan tennis officials.

The Russian, who has Armenian roots, wrote a message on a television camera lens after his fourth-round win at Melbourne Park that said: “Keep believing until the very end. Artsakh, hold on!”

In a previous round, the semi-finalist wrote: “Artsakh stay strong.”

They were referencing the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave of Azerbaijan over which Baku and Yerevan have fought two wars.

“I have Armenian roots. From my father’s side, from my grandfather’s side, even from my mum’s side. I’m half-Armenian,” he said after reaching the semi-finals, with an Armenian flag seen in Rod Laver Arena.

“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.”

In a letter posted online, the Azerbaijan Tennis Federation said it had protested to Australian Open organisers and the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

It demanded he be “punished” with “harsh measures”.

“The Azerbaijan Tennis Federation (ATF) has sent a letter of protest to the International Tennis Federation regarding the provocation against Azerbaijan at the Australian Open Tennis Grand Slam,” the message read.

“Karen Khachanov, a Russian athlete of Armenian origin, who reached the 1/16 finals in the men’s competition, attracted attention with his hateful act. Thus, after claiming 3:1 victory over his American rival Frances Tiafoe, Khachanov wrote ‘Artsakh stay strong’ on the camera as his heartfelt words.

“The Azerbaijan Tennis Federation letter presented facts and legal documents regarding the provocation against Azerbaijan. The ATF condemned this act and demanded the tennis player be punished and urged the International Tennis Federation to take harsh measures for prevention of such incidents in the future.”

Khachanov said he was not aware of the letter and had not been told to stop his post-match messages “so far”.

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