Djokovic back in Australia a year after being deported
SYDNEY – Former world No. 1 Novak Djokovic arrived in Australia on Tuesday almost one year after he was deported for refusing to be vaccinated against Covid-19, tennis officials said.
The nine-time Australian Open champion was initially banned from the country for three years after losing a high-stakes legal battle in January over his vaccine status.
Australia has since lifted its requirement for visitors to show proof of vaccination against Covid.
The government confirmed in November that the unvaccinated Serb was no longer barred and had been granted a visa allowing him to play in the opening Grand Slam of the year, which starts next month.
Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley said he hoped local fans would embrace Djokovic’s return.
“We welcome him back to Australia,” he told reporters.
“I think as we speak he’s landing in Adelaide and I think that he is going to be again the player to beat.
“I have a great deal of confidence in the Australian public. I have a lot of confidence that the fans will react how we hope they will react.”
Tennis Australia confirmed that Djokovic had touched down.
Djokovic, who has won 21 Grand Slams, has been criticised for his part in the saga, which played out as rolling anti-vaccination protests took place in Australia’s major cities.
He is scheduled to play in the Adelaide International, beginning Sunday, as he warms up for the Open in Melbourne.
“Over the years I’ve been really fortunate to start very strong in Australia and I love playing there,” the world No. 5 said in Dubai last week after ending 2022 with a record-equalling sixth ATP Tour Finals crown.
“After obviously what happened earlier this year, hopefully I can have a decent reception there and hopefully that can help me play some good tennis.”
Djokovic last set foot in Australia nearly a year ago, claiming he had obtained a medical exemption to enter the country without being vaccinated because he had recently recovered from Covid-19.
However, Australian border officials said he did not meet the requirements to be exempted from strict vaccination rules and he was detained for five days while pursuing an ultimately fruitless legal appeal.
In Djokovic’s absence, Spanish great Rafael Nadal swept past Daniil Medvedev to win the Australian Open in an epic five-setter – then backed it up with a 14th French Open.
Nadal will begin his preparations in Sydney at the United Cup, a new mixed-teams event, where a blockbuster showdown with Australian showman Nick Kyrgios will test his credentials.
Eighteen countries will compete in the event across 11 days from Thursday, with Brisbane, Perth and Sydney hosting group games in a round-robin format.
Ties comprise two men’s and two women’s singles matches and one mixed doubles. The finals series will be played in Sydney.
World No. 3 Casper Ruud and Germany’s Alexander Zverev, who is returning from a serious ankle injury, will participate.
Top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz will warm up at the Kooyong Classic exhibition in Melbourne from Jan 10 to 12 as he battles back from the abdominal injury that shortened his pre-season training block.
The 19-year-old Spaniard, a major threat to Djokovic and Nadal, missed the season-ending ATP Finals and Davis Cup Finals with a muscle tear, but is confident he will be ready.
“I would say the key is to practise a lot, spend a lot of hours on court,” he said this month.
“I will be ready and 100 percent heading into Australia.” Italy’s Jannik Sinner and world No. 9 Taylor Fritz, among others, will also use Kooyong to fine-tune.
Women’s world No. 1 Iga Swiatek will acclimatise in Perth with her Polish teammates at the United Cup on the back of winning the French Open and US Open in 2022.
The three-time Grand Slam champion is targeting a first Australian Open title after losing in the semis this year to Danielle Collins, who then crashed to Ashleigh Barty in the final.
Swiatek inherited the top ranking following the shock retirement of Barty in March, and has been dominant ever since.
American world No. 3 Jessica Pegula and resurgent French world No. 4 Caroline Garcia, fresh from beating Aryna Sabalenka to win the WTA Finals, also feature at the United Cup.
Four of the other top 10 women begin the year in Adelaide, with second-ranked Ons Jabeur, world No. 5 Sabalenka, world No. 8 Daria Kasatkina and world No. 9 Veronika Kudermetova all entered. - AFP