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As the Australian Open approaches, there seems to be only one story


MELBOURNE, Australia — One by one, some of the world’s greatest tennis players took off their masks on Saturday for a day of press conferences, but they didn’t necessarily let their guard down.

It’s a delicate situation, the Novak Djokovic case. A fluid situation too, with a federal court hearing scheduled for Sunday to try to determine whether the world’s No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player will have his visa restored and be allowed to defend his Australian Open title, although he has not been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

On Saturday, as the cameras rolled and Djokovic returned to custody at the Park Hotel, the media day went by without the defending champion at Melbourne Park. (Normally he would have been included in the event – where the players were alone on the stage and members of the news media were socially distanced – but Djokovic was not interviewed on Saturday given the situation. )

But he was always there – his case was in almost every interview, as his fellow athletes played the Q&A game ahead of the start of the Australian Open on Monday (with or without Djokovic).

Naomi Osaka, the Japanese star who has often been one of the sport’s most outspoken players on social issues, was more circumspect this time around, saying the decision was ultimately up to the government and not the players. tennis, but suggesting that she understood how control felt.

“I know what it’s like to be in your situation in a place where you’re asked about this person, just to see other players’ comments,” she said. “It’s not the best thing. I just try to stay positive.

But Rafael Nadal, one of Djokovic’s longtime rivals, was ready to play closer to the lines.

“I tell you one thing,” Nadal said. “It is very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players in history, without a doubt. But there is not a single player in history who is more important than the event, right? The player stays then leaves, and other players arrive.

“Even Roger, Novak, myself, Bjorn Borg, who was amazing in his day, tennis continues,” he said, referring to Roger Federer. “The Australian Open is more important than any player. If he finally plays, OK. If he doesn’t play, the Australian Open will be a great Australian Open.”

Some players had surely prepared for Djokovic’s question, talking with their agents and those around them to try to get their message across. But Nadal’s body language seemed as spontaneous as his freewheeling English on Saturday, full of posturing as he searched for the right words in his second language.

I asked him what lessons could be learned from Djokovic’s mess (I didn’t call it a mess).

Although Nadal said it had no effect on his personal preparation, he said things had gone too far, dominating headlines and obscuring early season results. Other players shared that sentiment, including Alex de Minaur from Australia, Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain and Emma Raducanu, the thoughtful British teenager who was the surprise champion at the US Open last year.

“I feel like the situation has taken a toll on the great tennis being played this summer,” Raducanu said, referring to the Australian summer.

She touched on the feel-good story of Andy Murray, who reached the final in Sydney aged 34: his first tour final since 2019, and all the more remarkable as he now has an artificial hip. Raducanu could also have mentioned Nadal, who returned after chronic foot problems and his last extended break to win the singles title last Sunday at an ATP 250 preliminary event in Melbourne.

“Honestly, I’m a bit tired of the situation because I just believe it’s important to talk about our sport, about tennis,” Nadal said of Djokovic’s case.

In truth, there has been no shortage of pre-tournament entertainment over the years in Melbourne.

Large-scale match-fixing reports dominated the build-up to the 2016 tournament. Bushfires obscured much of tennis in 2020, as did pandemic quarantine restrictions in 2021, which reduced some players from hitting balls against walls and mattresses in their hotel rooms to try and maintain some kind of rhythm (and sanity).

But what separates 2022 from its predecessors is that the focus is on the fate of one player, not just any. Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion, in his record 355th week as No. 1 and increasingly the consensus pick as the greatest male player of that golden era, although he’s still tied with Nadal and Federer at 20 Grand Slam singles titles.

The French Open belonged to Nadal – he won an astonishing 13 titles on clay in Paris – but the Australian Open was Djokovic’s domain, and it will be interesting to see the effect many years from now. of the pandemic standoff in Melbourne. about his legacy, below and beyond.

Nick Kyrgios, a young star who was not at the press conference as he self-isolates in Sydney after testing positive for coronavirus, offered his support for Djokovic on the ‘No Boundaries’ podcast on Saturday.

“We’re treating it like it’s a weapon of mass destruction right now; he is literally here to play tennis,” Kyrgios said, suggesting the Australians were using Djokovic as a punching bag to vent their frustrations over all their pandemic deprivation.

“As a human, he obviously feels quite alienated,” said Kyrgios, who said Djokovic reached out to him via social media to thank him for his support. “It’s a dangerous place when you feel like the world is against you and you can’t do anything right.”

Alexander Zverev, another young star close to Djokovic, argued on Saturday against reading too much into the current drama.

“He still won 20 Grand Slams. He still has the most weeks at No. 1. He still has the most Masters Series,” Zverev said. “Still for me one of the greatest players of all time. I mean, obviously it’s not a good thing for everyone, for him in particular. But don’t question his legacy because of that.

Legacies are of course not just about results. It’s also about the intangibles: the memories and the fun that fans hold close to them after years of following a champion.

Djokovic is a complex, often contradictory figure who can be both self-serving and magnanimous, devoting, for example, considerable time and energy to promoting the cause of lower-tier players and helping to support athletes from Serbia and the wider Balkan region.

His radiance has sometimes turned against him. The charity tennis tour he organized at the start of the pandemic in 2020 had to be canceled after he and other players tested positive for coronavirus, and he misread the global mood by partying without a mask and without social distancing.

Now, after saying he tested positive again last month and received a vaccination waiver from Tennis Australia, he has arrived in a city and country where lockdowns and health restrictions have been among the toughest in the world, and where the coronavirus case and hospitalization rates have been rising rapidly. The Australian government, as it tries to deport him after canceling his visa for a second time, argues that his continued presence risks jeopardizing its vaccination campaign.

Vaccines are no panacea – Nadal, like Raducanu, recently contracted the coronavirus after playing in Abu Dhabi despite being inoculated. But vaccines have been shown to protect against serious diseases. Nadal remains a supporter of them, while Djokovic is an outlier, one of only three players in the top 100 who have not been vaccinated, according to the men’s circuit.

One of the others, American Tennys Sandgren, a two-time Australian Open quarter-finalist, opted out of the trip to Melbourne this year and did not request a waiver. He called the Australian case against Djokovic a “witch hunt”, and while it’s hard to get that far, it seems pretty clear Australian authorities have been sending mixed signals and communicating poorly.

The Victorian state government, after all, had granted Djokovic a medical exemption from the vaccination requirement, which the federal government rescinded after further investigation when Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on January 5.

“I mean, he had a visa, right?” Zverev said. “The Australian government and the Victorian government should have been clear in advance about what is going to happen.”

That’s a good point – just as it’s a great point that Djokovic, after saying he was told he tested positive for coronavirus last month, should never have agreed to an in-person interview with the French journalist. Franck Ramella in Belgrade, Serbia, instead of isolating himself.

Mistakes were made in many areas in this case, and the result is a controversy too big to ignore – one that has so far left little room for pure tennis stories, like Australian veteran Samantha Stosur playing his last Australian Open in singles. .

“Look, I think it all got a little messy; that’s probably an understatement,” Stosur said wistfully of the Djokovic case. “Hopefully over the weekend a decision can finally be made whether you agree or not. He stays or he goes. Either way, that has to be decided and hopefully it won’t tarnish the rest of the Australian Open.


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