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Australia falls in love with Novak Djokovic again

One year after the vaccination scandal
Australia falls in love with Novak Djokovic again

By Andreas Thies, Melbourne

The 2022 Australian Open will be clouded by scandal and the expulsion of tennis superstar Novak Djokovic. A year later, the Serbian is back and a country falls in love with the record holder of the “Happy Slam” in Melbourne. Sportingly, things could hardly be better.

Then it went through the player’s tunnel. Coming out of the Rod Laver Arena, you must pass all the legends of the sport who have already won this tournament. Each of the winners will be honored in this player tunnel. Ken Rosewall, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi – of course Boris Becker too. Djokovic shouldered his bag, turned to his opponent that night, Nick Kyrgios, smiled and then entered the arena to thunderous applause, of which he is the biggest. He has won the title nine times, more than anyone else among the men.

Warm welcome from the moderator, a few jokes about the upcoming game. Afterwards, the Serb once again reminded that the proceeds from ticket sales go to a good cause. The audience had warmly welcomed him, almost falling in love with him again, it seemed. Nothing recalled the situation a year ago when Djokovic was expelled from the country. When Australia, which faced the longest lockdowns in the world during the pandemic, failed to realize there had to be someone bigger than the rules that were set at the time.

Complete practice match in 58 minutes

A year has passed since. A year in which a lot has happened. Corona has lost much of its horror in Australia over the course of 2022. Admittedly, news from China is viewed with suspicion, but otherwise things have returned to normal here halfway around the world. Masks are no longer mandatory and vaccination documents no longer have to be presented at the entrance. The three-year entry ban against the Serb was lifted later in the year. Craig Tiley, the boss of Tennis Australia, announced at a press conference shortly before the start of the first Grand Slam that there were no more compulsory corona tests. Anyone who does not feel well should stay at home, but it cannot be ruled out that Corona-positive athletes will also take part in their matches.

Forgive and forget all the drama of the previous year. Djokovic’s relief at the benevolent reception was visible every second. “I was very emotional when I arrived on the pitch. I didn’t know how the reception would be after the events of last year. I’m very grateful for that,” he said later during a press conference.

58 minutes. It took all this time for the tickets for the practice match between Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios to sell out. Tickets cost AU$20, or around €13, with proceeds going to the Australian Tennis Foundation. The match was billed as ‘The Arena Showdown’, which can be seen as a slight exaggeration considering the importance of this clash. Djokovic was deliberately flippant and humorous, although light things always felt a bit tense to him.

Just a minor injury to worry about

Djokovic and his fans.

(Photo: IMAGO/ZUMA Wire)

Her debut in the new tennis year can be called successful. No one had noticed he was in Australia. Nobody had put the old stories on the table. He entered Australia at the end of December. Without notice. He was right there at one point. The first images were of a Djokovic in training at the Adelaide tournament.

There he gave autographs, willingly took selfies, and photos of the new Djokovic ended up on social media. In terms of sport, there are hardly any question marks with the Serbs anyway. He won his only preparatory tournament, in Adelaide, with brilliant play. Only his thigh had worried him for the past seven days. In the semi-final against the Russian Daniil Medvedev, he was slightly injured. In Melbourne, he had to interrupt a training session to prepare. But that’s no longer a problem, he said. “I was able to train, play practice sets, so hopefully it won’t be a big problem.” Although he had to be more careful in training.

Australian Open hoping for a restart

It’s not yet known what the reception will look like in his first game on Tuesday, but Djokovic is getting some big help from Craig Tiley. He had announced that there would be no “boo policy”, but if disgruntled viewers disturbed the enjoyment of others, they would be excluded. What this will look like in practice remains exciting.

Tiley, who didn’t do well last year, doesn’t want to leave anything to chance. The Australian Open should be the “Happy Slam” again. We would like to forget the last two years, during which it was only possible to hold the event with a lot of effort. 2023 should mark the beginning of a new narrative, in which Djokovic could play. “I’m really looking forward to playing in front of people and I hope to give them lots of fun and good vibes,” said the Serb. “If I kept holding grudges, I probably wouldn’t be able to keep going, so I wouldn’t be here now.”

That doesn’t mean the first Grand Slam of the year is the end of the saga over unvaccinated Novak Djokovic. Just a few days ago, the United States extended the deadline until April, during which time you can only enter the country if you have been vaccinated. In all likelihood, Djokovic will not be allowed to participate in the two biggest tournaments apart from the Grand Slam tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. The motto for this year’s Australian Open is “History Begins Here”, History Begins Here – as appropriate.

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