MELBOURNE, Australia — Flanked by safety personnel and members of his touring entourage, Novak Djokovic strode briskly by means of a near-empty Tullamarine Airport, his eyes mounted on the white tiles shining beneath his toes. A KN95 masks hid a big portion of his face, however there was nonetheless no hiding the utter dejection.
The 2022 Australian Open was simply hours from kicking off, but the reigning males’s champion, and then-world No. 1, was getting ready to depart Melbourne on an Emirates flight sure for Dubai, earlier than jetting again dwelling to Serbia.
Djokovic had simply been embroiled in an 11-day authorized battle during which he tried to have his Australian visa reinstated following its cancellation. The unvaccinated tennis star finally failed in his bid, and Djokovic was deported and successfully handed a three-year ban from the nation, with Australian immigration regulation stopping him from reapplying for a visa till no less than 2025.
For one of many few events in his skilled profession, Djokovic left Melbourne a defeated man. He hadn’t performed a single minute on court docket, but he appeared extra drained than within the quick aftermath of any of his 9 Australian Open titles.
“It is a type of issues that stays with you for, I suppose, the remainder of your life. You possibly can’t neglect these occasions,” Djokovic defined. “It was not straightforward for me, for my household, group, or anyone who’s near me.”
Later, he informed 9News Melbourne: “It was so massive within the media that I simply couldn’t combat it. I used to be drawn right into a storm in media worldwide that was associated to something to do with COVID and the vaccine. The whole lot obtained out of hand after which I used to be labelled as this or that. I turned the villain of the world, which is clearly a horrible place to be in as an athlete. I stayed for a number of weeks at dwelling, did not actually go round an excessive amount of. I simply hoped the state of affairs would settle down.”
Djokovic’s ignominious exit was met with assist among the many majority of Australians, in notably Melburnians who have been topic to strict lockdowns all through 2021. There had been a sense amongst locals that Djokovic could be receiving preferential therapy by the Australian authorities if he have been ready to participate within the Australian Open, which may have sparked additional public outrage.
A lot has modified over the previous 12 months. Australia, like many countries, has dropped its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for overseas arrivals. And, simply as crucially for Djokovic, his three-year ban was reversed in November, with Australian immigration minister Andrew Giles confirming Djokovic could be granted a short lived visa to enter the nation and compete within the 2023 event, to which the Serbian star declared: “I couldn’t have acquired higher information.”
Not solely does it provide Djokovic the prospect to attract even with Rafael Nadal for probably the most main wins in males’s tennis historical past, however there is a chance for redemption. A chance to win again followers. Final 12 months’s dramatic deportation saga was simply one other incident in what has been a checkered latest previous for Djokovic, and his fame has seemingly taken beating upon beating.
In January 2020, shortly after his triumph at Melbourne Park, the tennis world was thrust right into a close to five-month hiatus as COVID-19 started wreaking havoc across the globe. In an effort to stay match, Djokovic proposed the thought of an exhibition-style event in his dwelling area of the Balkans. The ATP gave it the inexperienced mild, permitting it to happen between June and July.
The occasion, dubbed the “Adria Tour,” promptly got here below heavy criticism for the shortage of social-distancing protocols at stadiums, with hundreds of followers seen mingling with out face masks. A video additionally circulated exhibiting Djokovic and a bunch of different tennis stars partying on the Lafayette Delicacies Cabaret Membership in Belgrade. Days later, Djokovic and spouse Jelena introduced they’d each contracted COVID-19. The rest of the occasion was canceled instantly.
A number of months later, with the mud of the Adria Tour lastly settled, Djokovic arrived in New York because the overwhelming favourite for the US Open. The absence of Roger Federer and Nadal meant Djokovic was one in every of simply three Grand Slam champions — together with Andy Murray and Marin Cilic — in your complete males’s draw. It was his event to lose.
However Djokovic’s title once more made headlines for all of the mistaken causes following his fourth-round match in opposition to Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta. After dropping his serve within the eleventh sport of the opening set, and falling behind 5-6, Djokovic took a spare ball out of his pocket and slapped it firmly behind the court docket, hanging a linesperson within the throat. Djokovic instantly raised his arm to sign his lack of intent earlier than dashing over to help. Nonetheless, it left event referee Soeren Friemel with little alternative however to disqualify him from the occasion and strip him of the $250,000 prize cash he would have acquired for reaching the final 16.
By the point January 2021 rolled round, when Djokovic was boarding that flight out of Australia, his fame was at an all-time low. The query everybody has been pondering forward of this 12 months’s event was simply how would he be acquired.
It was solely ever going to go one in every of two methods. Djokovic may have returned to Australia holding a extreme grudge with the nation, authorities and folks over what he believed was mistreatment in 2022. He may have proven little regret for a way final 12 months unfolded and even seemed to bait crowds throughout his matches. And whereas it may need made for enthralling viewing, Djokovic mentioned it wasn’t the precise path to take. “If I do maintain the grudges [and] if I am not capable of transfer on, I would not be right here,” he mentioned.
As an alternative, Djokovic orchestrated a public relations masterstroke. He opted out of the United Cup in Sydney in favor of the Adelaide Worldwide, quietly dipping his toes into the waters earlier than flying to Melbourne for a charity match.
He squared off in opposition to native hero Nick Kyrgios in an exhibition on the eve of the Australian Open — one which bought out in simply 58 minutes. Djokovic acquired rapturous applause as he made his extremely anticipated return to Rod Laver Area, the court docket the place he has loved the overwhelming majority of his skilled success. He endeared himself to the Australian public by laughing and joking alongside Kyrgios, high-fiving ball youngsters and interacting with followers, earlier than talking extremely of the nation.
“It is nice to be again right here in Australia. That is the court docket and the stadium the place I created the most effective reminiscences of my skilled tennis profession,” he mentioned. “I used to be very emotional coming into the court docket. I did not understand how that was going to go after the occasions of final 12 months. I am very grateful for the sort power and reception, love and assist I obtained.”
Melbourne is a multicultural metropolis, a metropolis during which greater than 30,000 Serbian Australians name dwelling. Djokovic will nearly definitely be boosted by the ever-present crowds of vocal Serbian supporters for each match he performs inside Rod Laver Area.
Djokovic opens his Australian Open marketing campaign Tuesday night in opposition to Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena. He’ll once more strut his stuff on heart court docket, the place he appears to increase his streak of singles wins on Australian soil to 35 matches.
That street to redemption begins now.
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