detention in an immigration facility and courtroom drama form the backdrop to
what would be Novak Djokovic’s greatest victory if he lifts a record 21st Grand
Slam at the Australian Open.
With the Melbourne showpiece starting on Monday, the world
number one and defending champion’s participation is in grave doubt.
The Australian government is still pondering whether to
cancel the visa of the unvaccinated Serb for a second time and throw him out of
The 34-year-old flew into Melbourne claiming a vaccine
exemption because of a positive Covid test in mid-December, but border
officials rejected that, his visa was revoked and he was moved to a detention
Djokovic’s legal team overturned that in court, freeing the
top seed to begin his disrupted preparations for a tournament in which he has
not lost a match since 2018. The Australian government could yet deport him
“Despite all that has happened, I want to stay and try
to compete,” he tweeted, adding that he “remained focused” on
winning his favourite Slam despite his unprecedented build-up on, off and in
If Djokovic, who is drawn against fellow Serb Miomir
Kecmanovic in the first round, does play and goes on to win the Australian Open
he would become the most successful men’s tennis player in history with 21
But he would likely have to do it in the face of a hostile
reception from spectators, all of whom must be vaccinated to get through the
gates of Melbourne Park, in a city which has endured more than 250 days of
Djokovic is one of the best tennis players of all time but
he has a history of provoking controversy.
Last year he was accused of feigning injury during his run
to the Australian Open title.
At the 2020 US Open he was defaulted from the tournament for
hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball.
All that came after his ill-fated launch of his Adria Tour
at the height of the pandemic in 2020 when the world of sport was shut down.
He was labelled a “tool” by Australia’s Nick
Kyrgios after requesting houses with practice courts for players quarantining
before last year’s Australian Open.
Nadal threat, Murray
But there is no doubt about his talent or popularity in the
eyes of his loyal fans, and Melbourne has a sizeable Serbian community.
Djokovic has been year-end world number one on a record
seven occasions and spent more weeks at the top of the ATP Tour rankings, 359
and counting, than any other player.
His ninth victory in 17 visits at last year’s Covid-delayed
tournament reinforced his dominance in Melbourne, where he claimed his first
Grand Slam title in 2008.
With Roger Federer injured and absent, Rafael Nadal and
world number two Daniil Medvedev look to be Djokovic’s biggest challengers —
and beneficiaries if the Serb does not play.
Russia’s Medvedev, who faces Switzerland’s Henri Laaksonen
in the first round, conquered Djokovic in the US Open final in September to win
his maiden major and end the world number one’s bid to win a calendar Grand
Ageing Spanish great Nadal — one of the ‘Big Three’
alongside Djokovic and Federer — is also chasing a record 21st major.
However, it is now 13 years since the injury-prone Nadal,
who begins his campaign against American Marcos Giron, won his lone title in
Melbourne, despite four further trips to the final.
Other contenders include Germany’s Olympic champion
Alexander Zverev and world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, though the Greek is
trying to overcome recent elbow surgery.
Britain’s Andy Murray, runner-up in the Australian Open five
times, returns on a wildcard for the first time since an emotional 2019
“farewell” appearance after undergoing hip surgery that enabled him
to make a remarkable comeback.
Murray will begin his bid against 21st-seeded Nikoloz
Basilashvili, whom the Scot beat in three sets at the Sydney ATP warm-up event