AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2023: Unvaccinated Djokovic back, year later

Jan 10, 2023, 3:34 PM | Updated: Jan 11, 2023, 3:28 pm
FILE - Serbia's Novak Djokovic poses with his trophy after defeating Norway's Casper Ruud in the si...

FILE - Serbia's Novak Djokovic poses with his trophy after defeating Norway's Casper Ruud in the singles final tennis match to win the ATP World Tour Finals in Turin, Italy, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. Djokovic had just wrapped up last season by winning the ATP Finals for a record sixth time when, rather than looking ahead to 2023, his mind immediately went back to the way 2022 began: He was unable to compete in last year's Australian Open after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.(AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)

(AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)

              FILE - Serbia's Novak Djokovic poses with his trophy after defeating Norway's Casper Ruud in the singles final tennis match to win the ATP World Tour Finals in Turin, Italy, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. Djokovic had just wrapped up last season by winning the ATP Finals for a record sixth time when, rather than looking ahead to 2023, his mind immediately went back to the way 2022 began: He was unable to compete in last year's Australian Open after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.(AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)
            
              FILE - Defending men's champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic practices on Margaret Court Arena ahead of the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. Djokovic will be back in action at the Australian Open when the 2023 Grand Slam season begins next week. He was not able to play in the tournament he's won nine times a year ago because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19 and was deported from the country. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)
            
              FILE - Rafael Nadal, of Spain, celebrates his win over Daniil Medvedev, of Russia, in the men's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 31, 2022. Nadal is the defending men's champion at Melbourne Park and owner of a men's-record 22 major championships.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's Novak Djokovic hits a backhand return to Germany's Alexander Zverev during their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. Djokovic will be back in action at the Australian Open when the 2023 Grand Slam season begins next week. (AP Photo/Hamish Blair, File)
            
              FILE - Recently deported from Australia for not being vaccinated against COVID-19, Novak Djokovic prepares to take his seat on a plane to Belgrade, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Djokovic will be back in action at the Australian Open when the 2023 Grand Slam season begins next week. He was not able to play in the tournament he's won nine times a year ago because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19 and was deported from the country.  (AP Photo/Darko Bandic, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's Novak Djokovic poses with his trophy after defeating Norway's Casper Ruud in the singles final tennis match to win the ATP World Tour Finals in Turin, Italy, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. Djokovic had just wrapped up last season by winning the ATP Finals for a record sixth time when, rather than looking ahead to 2023, his mind immediately went back to the way 2022 began: He was unable to compete in last year's Australian Open after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.(AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)
            
              FILE - Defending men's champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic practices on Margaret Court Arena ahead of the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. Djokovic will be back in action at the Australian Open when the 2023 Grand Slam season begins next week. He was not able to play in the tournament he's won nine times a year ago because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19 and was deported from the country. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)
            
              FILE - Rafael Nadal, of Spain, celebrates his win over Daniil Medvedev, of Russia, in the men's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 31, 2022. Nadal is the defending men's champion at Melbourne Park and owner of a men's-record 22 major championships.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's Novak Djokovic hits a backhand return to Germany's Alexander Zverev during their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. Djokovic will be back in action at the Australian Open when the 2023 Grand Slam season begins next week. (AP Photo/Hamish Blair, File)
            
              FILE - Recently deported from Australia for not being vaccinated against COVID-19, Novak Djokovic prepares to take his seat on a plane to Belgrade, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Djokovic will be back in action at the Australian Open when the 2023 Grand Slam season begins next week. He was not able to play in the tournament he's won nine times a year ago because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19 and was deported from the country.  (AP Photo/Darko Bandic, File)

Novak Djokovic had just wrapped up last season by winning the ATP Finals for a record sixth time when, rather than looking ahead to 2023, his mind immediately went back to the way 2022 began: He was unable to compete in last year’s Australian Open after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

That whole episode, and the decision to eschew the shots required for entry elsewhere, too, helped define his season and, perhaps to some, his legacy. So as he reflected on his triumph at the year-ending championships in Italy last November, Djokovic viewed it through the prism of what occurred in Australia last January.

“It feels deeply satisfying and, at the same time, huge relief, because of the circumstances that I have been through this year — situations earlier this year, of course, with Australia. … That had an effect, obviously, on my start of the year,” the 35-year-old from Serbia said. “For the first several months, I was trying to find that balance, game-wise but also mentally, in order to be able to come back to the court and find that tennis level that I need.”

When the new Grand Slam season begins at the Australian Open on Monday morning (Sunday night EST), Djokovic will be back. Back in Australia — despite never getting inoculated against the coronavirus — thanks to government decisions to remove any vaccination requirements for visitors and to waive what could have been three-year ban for him as someone whose visa had been revoked. Back at a tournament he has dominated like no other, resulting in nine of his 21 major trophies, including the past three times he played there.

Back in position to strive for elite status and to challenge his great rival Rafael Nadal for supremacy in the Grand Slam title chase. Sure, it is Nadal who is the defending champion and who owns a men’s-record 22 majors. It is Djokovic, though, who will draw the most attention. And it is Djokovic who will be viewed as the favorite — and would have been, even had he not started off his trip to Australia by winning a tuneup title at Adelaide.

The lead-up to this Australian Open has been filled with talk about who will not be there: Serena Williams and Roger Federer ended their playing careers in 2022, as did Ash Barty; No. 1-ranked Carlos Alcaraz, former Australian Open finalist Marin Cilic and seven-time major champion Venus Williams are injured; former No. 1 and four-time Slam winner Naomi Osaka last played a completed match in August and announced on social media on Wednesday that she is pregnant and will be taking the year off. Another former top-ranked player, Simona Halep, is serving a provisional doping suspension.

Once play begins, the talk will squarely be about Djokovic, and most folks in the sport seem to agree he should be back in the field.

Nadal, for one, called it “good for tennis.”

“It’s nice to see cooler heads prevailing there, (after) politics got in the way,” former U.S. Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish said.

Frances Tiafoe, an American who reached the U.S. Open semifinals, said: “We want the biggest players playing in the biggest tournaments in the world, regardless of everything else. We’re trying to sell a product at the end of the day, and you want those big names at the big events.”

One measure of how much things have changed, even as the coronavirus remains a part of daily life around the world: For the first time since 2020, players at the Australian Open will not need to self-report if they test positive for COVID-19; tournament director Craig Tiley said they’re simply being encouraged to stay away if they are sick.

Djokovic’s legal saga created plenty of drama — and drew plenty public expression of opinions, whether from those pleased he wasn’t allowed into the country or those protesting the outcome — a year ago, but the response to his return has been rather muted so far, with little fuss or fanfare.

“Everybody was very welcoming” upon his arrival, Djokovic said, declaring more than once: “I don’t hold a grudge.”

So what if he hasn’t won a Grand Slam match played on a hard court since 2021? (He was not at the U.S. Open because he couldn’t enter the United States as an unvaccinated foreigner, a policy that was recently extended, meaning Djokovic might be unable to enter the tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami again.)

So what if he is “only” ranked No. 5?

“In my mind, I always see myself as the best player in the world, of course. I have that kind of mentality and that kind of approach,” Djokovic said, “regardless of who is across the net, regardless of what the surface is, regardless of what season it is.”

___

AP Sports Writer Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia, contributed to this report.

___

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

___

AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, dribbles around Golden State Warriors forward An...
Associated Press

Lillard has triple-double, Blazers rally late past Warriors

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Damian Lillard had 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds as the Portland Trail Blazers rallied past the Golden State Warriors 125-122 on Wednesday night. Jordan Poole scored 38 for the Warriors, who played without injured guard Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson added 31 points on his 33rd birthday, including seven 3-pointers. […]
22 hours ago
Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving, right, dribbles as Los Angeles Clippers guard Terance Mann def...
Associated Press

Irving scores 24 in Dallas debut, leads Mavs over Clippers

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 24 points in his Dallas debut and the Mavericks defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 110-104 on Wednesday night. The eight-time All-Star was traded to the Mavs on Sunday from the Brooklyn Nets. He was part of a 13-0 spurt early in the game, scoring eight points on a […]
22 hours ago
Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) goes to the basket as Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McD...
Associated Press

T’wolves top Jazz in matchup of teams trading with Lakers

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Anthony Edwards scored 31 points and Jaylen Nowell added a career-high 30 to lead Minnesota to a 143-118 win over Utah on Wednesday night amid word the Timberwolves, Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers were part of an eight-player swap hours ahead of the NBA trade deadline. “It was crazy, the […]
22 hours ago
Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) is congratulated after scoring during the second period of t...
Associated Press

Benn breaks scoreless tie early in 2nd, Stars top Wild 4-1

DALLAS (AP) — Captain Jamie Benn broke a scoreless tie 23 seconds into the second period of his 1,001st career game, and the Dallas Stars beat the Minnesota Wild 4-1 on Wednesday night. Benn’s 20th goal on a perfect feed from 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston started a three-goal second for the Western Conference-leading Stars. Radek […]
22 hours ago
Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) signals after making a 3-point shot, next to Sacramento Kings...
Associated Press

Fox’s late FTs gives Kings 130-128 win over Rockets

HOUSTON (AP) — De’Aaron Fox had 31 points, including three free throws with less than a second left, to lift the Sacramento Kings to a 130-128 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night. Fox missed a 3-pointer with .3 seconds left. But Eric Gordon fouled him to set up the game-winning free throws. “I […]
22 hours ago
Vancouver Canucks' Vasily Podkolzin (92) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the ...
Associated Press

Kreider, Chytil lead Rangers to 4-3 win over Canucks

NEW YORK (AP) — Chris Kreider and Filip Chytil got New York off to a strong start in the first period and the Rangers held on to beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 on Wednesday night for their third straight win. Alexis Lafreniere and Mika Zibanejad also scored for the Rangers, who have won four straight […]
22 hours ago
AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2023: Unvaccinated Djokovic back, year later