MELBOURNE, Australia — Flanked by safety personnel and members of his touring entourage, Novak Djokovic strode briskly by a near-empty Tullamarine Airport, his eyes fastened on the white tiles shining beneath his ft. 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 making ready to depart Melbourne on an Emirates flight certain for Dubai, earlier than jetting again residence to Serbia.
Djokovic had simply been embroiled in an 11-day authorized battle by 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 at the very least 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 courtroom, but he appeared extra drained than within the instant aftermath of any of his 9 Australian Open titles.
“It’s one of those things that stays with you for, I guess, the rest of your life. You can’t forget those events,” Djokovic defined. “It was not easy for me, for my family, team, or anybody who is close to me.”
Later, he advised 9News Melbourne: “It was so big in the media that I just could not fight it. I was drawn into a storm in media worldwide that was related to anything to do with COVID and the vaccine. Everything got out of hand and then I was labelled as this or that. I became the villain of the world, which is obviously a terrible place to be in as an athlete. I stayed for several weeks at home, didn’t really go around too much. I just hoped the situation would calm down.”
Djokovic’s ignominious exit was met with assist among the many majority of Australians, in significantly Melburnians who have been topic to strict lockdowns all through 2021. There had been a sense amongst locals that Djokovic can be receiving preferential remedy by the Australian authorities if he have been in a position to participate within the Australian Open, which might 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 international arrivals. And, simply as crucially for Djokovic, his three-year ban was reversed in November, with Australian immigration minister Andrew Giles confirming Djokovic can be granted a brief visa to enter the nation and compete within the 2023 match, to which the Serbian star declared: “I could not have received better news.”
Not solely does it supply Djokovic the possibility to attract even with Rafael Nadal for essentially 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 status 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 match in his residence area of the Balkans. The ATP gave it the inexperienced gentle, permitting it to happen between June and July.
The occasion, dubbed the “Adria Tour,” promptly got here beneath heavy criticism for the shortage of social-distancing protocols at stadiums, with 1000’s 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 that they had 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 all the males’s draw. It was his match to lose.
However Djokovic’s identify once more made headlines for all of the unsuitable causes following his fourth-round match towards 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 courtroom, placing a linesperson within the throat. Djokovic instantly raised his arm to sign his lack of intent earlier than dashing over to help. However, it left match 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 status was at an all-time low. The query everybody has been pondering forward of this 12 months’s match was simply how would he be acquired.
It was solely ever going to go one in every of two methods. Djokovic might have returned to Australia holding a extreme grudge with the nation, authorities and other people over what he believed was mistreatment in 2022. He might have proven little regret for the way final 12 months unfolded and even appeared to bait crowds throughout his matches. And whereas it might need made for enthralling viewing, Djokovic mentioned it wasn’t the proper path to take. “If I do hold the grudges [and] if I’m not able to move on, I wouldn’t be 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 towards 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 courtroom 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’s great to be back here in Australia. This is the court and the stadium where I created the best memories of my professional tennis career,” he mentioned. “I was very emotional coming into the court. I didn’t know how that was going to go after the events of last year. I’m very grateful for the kind energy and reception, love and support I got.”
Melbourne is a multicultural metropolis, a metropolis by which greater than 30,000 Serbian Australians name residence. Djokovic will virtually 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 towards Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena. He’ll once more strut his stuff on heart courtroom, the place he appears to be like to increase his streak of singles wins on Australian soil to 35 matches.
That street to redemption begins now.