Novak Djokovic’s quiet return to Australia this week could not be starker in contrast to the absurdity surrounding his arrival in Melbourne and subsequent deportation last January.
There has been no social media post nor any official words from the nine-time Australian Open champion as yet, though he did practise on Wednesday at Memorial Drive in Adelaide.
An advisory from Tennis Australia suggests the 21-time major winner will speak by the end of this week ahead of his appearance in the Adelaide International beginning on 1 January.
The off-Broadway arrival differs significantly to the triumphant tone of a social media post 12 months ago announcing he would be allowed to play in the 2022 Australian Open.
The post, accompanied by a photograph of Djokovic standing beside a private jet, followed months of conjecture as to whether he would receive permission to play given the strict entry laws in place in Australia during the pandemic.
It famously backfired on the king of Melbourne Park as the fraught political landscape at the time collided with the then world No 1’s refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The extraordinary scenes that unfolded over the following 10 days provide the most infamous chapter in a storied career. Djokovic was detained in an immigration hotel as protests unfolded on city streets, then freed for a midnight training session at Melbourne Park pending a federal court hearing that ultimately upheld the Australian government’s decision to cancel his visa on public health grounds tied to his vaccination stance.
On the eve of the Australian Open, the defending champion was deported and issued with a three-year visa ban amid questions surrounding his integrity and where he would be allowed to play next.
The 35-year-old is still unable to compete in the US because of his vaccination status. But a change in the Australian government, which considered his case and rescinded the visa ban in November, and the relaxation of entry laws has facilitated his low-fanfare return.
The heat is long gone from debates surrounding strict quarantine measures but an intriguing aspect of this Australian summer is how Djokovic will be treated by tennis fans when he takes to the court.
As is the case on the stadium courts around the globe, the world No 5 has received a mixed reception in Australia during his remarkable reign on the nation’s hard courts.
There is great respect for his remarkable deeds on the court. Djokovic has won his last 29 matches in Australia, which includes three major titles and also an ATP Cup for Serbia.
Another historic moment is in the offing in January with Djokovic seeking a 10th Australian Open title. If successful, he will level Rafael Nadal as a 22-time major winner.
The 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, who was raised in Melbourne, described the right-hander’s achievements in Australia as “absolutely phenomenal”.
Cash told the Guardian: “I’m not sure whether it is because he is always fresh, or if even he could put a finger as to the reason why, but he has managed to play the best tennis I have ever seen in my life at Melbourne Park.
“When considering the things a tennis fan needs to see in life, Rafa playing on Philippe Chatrier is one, Roger [Federer] playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon is another and you have to say that watching Novak playing at Melbourne Park at his best is right up there … because he just plays absolutely phenomenal tennis there.”
But the debacle of 2022 combined with his criticism of quarantine measures a year earlier, admittedly made on behalf of his fellow peers as president of the Professional Tennis Players Association, could not have been more poorly received by a significant portion of the Australian public.
His intervention in the public debate in 2021 was made from a luxury Adelaide hotel, where he was able to practise and train, and came at a time when Australians stuck overseas were still unable to return home.
If that proved a double-fault from a public relations perspective, the immigration saga was akin to a default.
A major newspaper poll published as the federal court heard his appeal in January found that more than 70% of respondents wanted Djokovic to be deported. It was not an outlier.
Djokovic might deliver another clean sweep on the court this summer, but that will not clear a reputation that is tarnished in the eyes of at least some Australians. However, he does have support from administrators and his peers at the very least.
Nadal, who benefited from Djokovic’s absence when claiming a famous Australian Open triumph, believes the presence of his rival is a bonus for the sport.
“Novak is here. [That is] good for tennis; good for, probably, the fans. Let’s see, no? [Having the] best players on court [is a] win,” he said on Wednesday.
Craig Tiley, the Tennis Australia chief executive who was heavily criticised for his role in the January farce, is hopeful the legend receives respect. “I have a great deal of confidence in the Australian public,” Tiley said. “We’re a very well-educated sporting public, particularly those who come to tennis.”