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Novak Djokovic Returns to the Australian Open, No Longer a Villain


MELBOURNE, Australia — It was the day before the Australian Open, and the Park Hotel in Melbourne’s Carlton neighborhood was closed with only the occasional pedestrian passing in front of the dusty, deserted entrance on a sedate Sunday.

Quite a special scene than last 12 months, when Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 tennis player, was in detention in Carlton ahead of the Open. He was about to be deported by the Australian government and miss the tournament after arriving within the country unvaccinated for the coronavirus and losing his final legal appeal.

“I just think the entire thing was totally embarrassing and it might have been avoided,” said Ailsa McDermid, a Melburnian who shuffled by on Sunday with a shopping bag in each hand and looked up on the now-vacant hotel.

Its large sign was covered by a dark tarpaulin, which seemed an appropriate metaphor: L’Affaire Djokovic was major news worldwide in January 2022, dominating conversation within the run-up to the 12 months’s first Grand Slam event, which Djokovic has won nine times, a men’s tournament record.

But a 12 months later, town, country and sport seem desirous to move on while getting back to tennis as usual.

The Australian Open “will mark a welcome return to normalcy after three years of bushfires, pandemic and the furor last 12 months about Novak Djokovic’s vaccination status,” The Age, one in all Melbourne’s leading newspapers, wrote in an editorial that was posted online Sunday with the headline “Let’s Enjoy Great Tennis, Pure and Easy.”

Djokovic, 35, stays one in all the few leading skilled tennis players to stay unvaccinated for the coronavirus, but Australia, which had a few of the most stringent restrictions on the earth in the course of the pandemic, not requires proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry into the country aside from travelers arriving from China.

Though Djokovic was routinely barred from Australia for 3 years after his deportation, the brand new Australian government selected to overturn that ban in November, and the Serb has returned to a welcome every bit as warm as Saturday’s sultry summer weather in Melbourne.

He was cheered in Adelaide as he won a lead-in tournament against a powerful field, and he received more strong and vocal support Friday night as he played an intermittently intense and lighthearted practice match in Rod Laver Arena with the Australian Nick Kyrgios in front of a capability crowd of 15,000 that had snapped up the available tickets in under an hour.

“I used to be very emotional, truthfully, coming into the court with the reception that I received,” Djokovic said Saturday. “I didn’t understand how that’s going to go after the events of last 12 months. I’m very grateful for the form of energy and reception, love and support I got.”

There remains to be ample resistance to Djokovic’s presence in Australia. In December, The Sydney Morning Herald commissioned a national poll by which 41 percent of the respondents said he mustn’t be allowed to remain within the country and play within the Australian Open. Only 30 percent clearly supported his participation, and one other 29 percent said they didn’t have a powerful opinion on the matter.

But those mixed feelings haven’t been noticeable (or audible) during his matches up to now, and he was relaxed enough Friday night to bop on changeovers and wiggle as he waited to return Kyrgios’s serve.

“If I do hold the grudge, probably if I’m not capable of move on, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Also, I even have to say that the quantity of positive experiences I had in Australia overwhelm the negative experience perhaps of last 12 months. My impression of Australia, my vision of Australia, has all the time been very positive, and that has reflected on my performance.”

Djokovic won the primary of his 21 Grand Slam titles on the Australian Open in 2008 — beating then-No. 1 Roger Federer in straight sets along the best way — and has reserved a few of his finest tennis for the hardcourts of Melbourne Park. He has a brilliant and glossy 82-8 singles record on the tournament and has never lost in the ultimate. From the early years of his profession, he has received particularly vocal support from Australia’s sizable Serbian population, and there have been Serbian flags in abundance Friday night, just as there have been last 12 months in front of the Park Hotel as supporters protested his detention.

However the cheers this 12 months have come from a much wider fan base.

“Australians have a little bit of a tall poppy syndrome, so that they like cutting people down once they get too big,” said Michaela Kennedy, 26, a Melbourne lawyer who attended Friday’s practice match. “But in addition they love a comeback story, and now Novak is a comeback story. In order that’s how it really works.”

The context has actually modified in Melbourne. When Djokovic arrived in January 2022, the population was still reeling from the series of strict lockdowns and travel restrictions that had kept some members of the family separated. In an interview last week with Australia’s Channel Nine network, Djokovic said he understood the anger of Australians after he was initially cleared to enter the country.

“I understand that it was a frustrating period for plenty of people around the globe, particularly here in Australia for 2 years,” he said. “So I understand that when media writes in a certain way a few guy who tried to go in and not using a vaccine that folks would say: ‘Wait, wait a second. Why is he allowed to are available when many individuals aren’t able or allowed to return from wherever they’re around the globe to their very own country? So I understand why they were frustrated, but again I even have to say that the media presented in a very improper way.”

In Djokovic’s view, he was “just following the foundations” and was in possession of the “valid papers,” including the exemption that had been validated by an independent body. (He did neglect to notice upon arrival that he had traveled to Spain shortly before coming to Australia.)

There clearly was miscommunication, or perhaps rivalry, between the regional government of Victoria, which initially supported the visa, and the federal government, which canceled it. Djokovic surely wouldn’t have boarded the plane to Melbourne if he had not believed he had what he needed to enter. Ultimately, he was deported by Alex Hawke, then the immigration minister, not due to a visa irregularity but since it was deemed in the general public interest to maintain him from becoming a rallying point for the anti-vaccination movement in Australia.

Despite the debacle, there was minimal fallout in Australian tennis. Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director and chief executive of Tennis Australia, has remained in his post along along with his core support team. He didn’t reply to requests for an interview and has not explained intimately how the mixed signals involving Djokovic got here about, but he told The Australian newspaper last week that “he knew the reality” and took strength from it.

“Would I prefer it didn’t occur? Absolutely,” Tiley said. “Personally, it was a really difficult period, but I used to be more concerned about our team and staff who were impacted not directly and in some cases directly impacted by a few of the extreme negativity and blame game that went on. But at the top of the day we were just doing our greatest.”

What has modified is the Park Hotel, long used as a detention facility for asylum seekers, a few of whom had been confined there for nine years in often spartan conditions, sparking protests from human rights groups in Australia. But Djokovic’s arrival intensified the highlight, and in April, the power’s last detainees were released on short-term visas.

“In that respect, Novak did refugees a favor,” Ian Rintoul, a Refugee Motion Coalition spokesman, said in an interview with Code Sports.

Djokovic has expressed his delight for the refugees who’ve been released. “I stayed there for every week, and I can’t imagine how they felt for nine years,” he said in May.

The Park Hotel’s future stays unclear, but Djokovic has little doubt upgraded his accommodations in 2023, and though he has been fiddling with a nagging hamstring injury, he has been moving well enough to be rightfully considered a powerful favorite to win again in Melbourne.

Doing so would allow him to tie Rafael Nadal, who won the title here last 12 months, for the boys’s record of twenty-two Grand Slam singles titles.

I asked Djokovic on Saturday if that was motivation.

“In fact it’s,” he answered. “I like my possibilities. I all the time like my possibilities. I train as hard as really anybody on the market. There’s plenty of children now which can be very hungry, that wish to win.”

Djokovic added, “The experience of being in these form of particular circumstances helps I believe to have the appropriate approach and do things in a correct way, because I do know once I’m healthy and playing my best on this court I even have possibilities really against anybody.”

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