The world was a different place one year ago. Russia was still massing troops on the border with Ukraine. Elon Musk was many months away from making Twitter worse. And Novak Djokovic was public enemy number one in Australia after a fight over his eligibility to play at the Australian Open in Melbourne became a tortuous saga that ended in his deportation.
But ahead of the 2023 tournament, which begins on Monday (Sunday night in the U.S.), the man at the center of that drawn-out international incident has largely been embraced by the country that so recently reviled him. At the Adelaide Cup, a warm-up tournament held earlier this month, Djokovic played to supportive and gracious crowds, and showed no sign that a recent hamstring injury was bothering him. Djokovic won the tournament, defeating American Sebastian Korda in a see-saw final that once again demonstrated Djokovic’s unparalleled mental grit.
Spectators showered Djokovic with cheers, delighted in the easy banter between the friends and rivals, and even traded high-fives and begged for selfies with players during breaks in the entertainment. In terms of mending relations, it was a full-blown courtship that settled any question of how Djokovic will be greeted when he steps onto the same court to launch his bid for a 10th Australian Open in earnest with a first-round match against Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain.
“Back in 2008 was the first time I won a Grand Slam, it was here, and 15 years later I’m here again and I’m competing at the high level,” Djokovic said. “I must be very grateful for this opportunity to be here so thank you, guys, for welcoming me in a good way tonight.”
This is all a stark contrast to last January, when Australian newscasters were muttering about how terrible he was on hot mics. A brief refresher: Djokovic, a 21-time major winner, holds a whole series of medically dubious beliefs and has never been vaccinated against COVID-19. (He infamously held a tournament/superspreader event during the first months of COVID.) Australia, one year ago, was still imposing strict virus rules it had put into place at the beginning of the pandemic. Djokovic said he received a medical exemption from Tennis Australia, which runs the Open, but when he arrived in the country on January 4, 2022 — amid widespread outrage that he wasn’t subjected to the harsh restrictions everyone else was experiencing — he was detained by the Border Force and taken to a detention hotel. A judge ordered his temporary release on procedural grounds and found that the state had treated him unfairly. But as public anger against Djokovic reached an even higher boiling point, Australian minister Alex Hawke unilaterally canceled his visa a few days later. After he lost an appeal, Djokovic was deported on January 16, almost two weeks after his misadventure began. Rafael Nadal ended up winning the Australian Open.
So why the friendly welcome this time around for a player who has never been particularly well-liked by tennis crowds?
For one thing, Djokovic generally took the high road throughout and after last year’s episode. Though he said his experience last year will stick with him, he never lashed out or expressed any real bitterness about the affair as it was unfolding. (This composure also characterizes Djokovic’s reactions to crowd negativity over the years.) Since most of the country was understandably furious at Djokovic, whining at all might have permanently damaged his standing in Australia.
The January 2022 saga also developed into such a jumbled mess that in the end, it was hard to tell who was primarily at fault. Djokovic certainly screwed up; he blamed a staffer’s “human error” for falsely claiming that he had not traveled outside Serbia for two weeks prior to his Australian arrival. And it became clear that he’d mingled with people in Serbia even after having received a positive COVID test (Djokovic called this an “error in judgment”; some speculated that the test was faked). But the Australians were hardly blameless. At best, there was serious miscommunication between Tennis Australia and the government about Djokovic’s eligibility in the first place, and Australian authorities seemed to be making up the rules as they went along, in accordance with the sour public mood.
Even people who think Djokovic brought this all on himself might, at this point, grudgingly respect that he has stuck to his guns, no matter how dumb those guns are. His illogical stance on vaccination has come at steep personal cost; along with the Australian Open, Djokovic missed last year’s U.S. Open and other important tournaments because of restrictions against unvaccinated travel into the U.S. And it looks like he’ll again miss several U.S. tournaments this year, since the American government is still requiring vaccination to enter the country (for reasons that make little sense).
And then there’s just Australia’s current attitude toward COVID. The country endured about two years of onerous regulations, and perhaps its tennis-loving citizens would rather focus on the relative normalcy of now and not dwell on all that unpleasantness.
Because Djokovic has missed so much play over the past year, the world’s best player is only seeded number five. But he is a strong favorite to win his mind-boggling tenth title, especially as No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal struggles to compete at his usual level. If Djokovic does win again, it looks like he might even be a crowd favorite, which has been a rarity over his long career. (It helps that Roger Federer is no longer in the picture.)
And if Djokovic does something to piss the country off in the next week, he’ll still probably be insulated from too much jeering; the tournament has put in place an anti-booing policy that seems geared toward protecting him. Based on the last week, it seems unlikely they’ll need it.