In the hours after Novak Djokovic was briefly freed from government custody in Melbourne last year, his visa cancellation overturned on procedural grounds, he headed straight for the tennis court to resume his suspended preparation for the Australian Open. His first hitting session was played out behind closed doors at night, but by the time he returned in the day, chaos reigned over Melbourne Park. Fans and journalists alike tried to slip inside Rod Laver Arena, drones whirled overhead just to get an unauthorised glimpse of him in action.
Outside of Park Hotel, where he was being detained, Djokovic’s fans congregated to dance and cheer, activists marked their presence in support of the dozens of asylum seekers also being held there and anti-vaxxers could not stay away. When Djokovic visited his lawyers upon his return to government custody, his supporters crowded the office and any car that left before being teargassed in the middle of Melbourne’s central business district.
One year on, Djokovic’s return to Melbourne has been notable for how unremarkable it has been. This week, he gave an emotional interview to Channel Nine, in which he provided his own perspective on the events of the previous year: “Everything got out of hand and then I was labelled as this or that. It was so big in the media that I just could not fight that, I didn’t even want to get into that. I obviously wanted to stay here and play tennis, but at some point with the amount of craziness going around, I just wanted to get out and go back home.”
Otherwise, Djokovic’s preparation has been as mundane as he would like. Friday evening marked Djokovic’s first interaction with full Melbourne crowds since his deportation as he and Nick Kyrgios played an exhibition at a sold-out Rod Laver Arena. It was largely a hit-and-giggle that included points played with juniors and wheelchair players. For Kyrgios, it served as an opportunity to gain some minutes under the stadium lights having not yet competed officially this year due to injury.
After his experience last year, it was perhaps even more valuable for Djokovic. One of the clear question marks on his return was whether any parts of the Melbourne crowd would be unhappy with his presence. It has been clear that Djokovic himself was uncertain about how he would be received and hostility was a prospect realistic enough for Craig Tiley, the tournament director, to suggest that disruptive fans would be kicked out of the venue.
But Djokovic returned to a warm welcome in the city of his greatest triumphs, with flags from the city’s large Serbian community visible across the stadium. As he spoke during the pre-match interview, Djokovic said he felt emotional. “It feels great to be back in Australia and back in Melbourne. It is the court where I created the best memories of my tennis career.”
What is clear is that, despite what the rankings suggest, Djokovic – No 5 in the ATP standings – is currently the best player in the world and he will begin the tournament in the same position as he has so many times over the years – the clear favourite as he pursues his 10th Australian Open title and men’s record-equalling 22nd grand slam triumph.
Despite a schedule still limited by his inability to compete in the US due to his refusal to take a Covid vaccine, Djokovic has swept up titles with ease, winning six tournaments since May, including Wimbledon and the ATP Finals. He had struggled immediately after his return following the deportation, first with his form and then his fitness, but he has returned to his best. Since May, Djokovic has compiled a 39-2 record at regular events, losing only to Rafael Nadal in the French Open quarter-finals and a fearless breakout performance from the 19-year-old Holger Rune in the final of the Paris Masters.
Djokovic opened his season by winning in Adelaide for his 92nd career title, which he achieved through one of his favourite pastimes: breaking the spirit of far younger players, this time saving a match point in the final against Sebastian Korda. The draw itself has been kind to him and he will be able to ease himself in, beginning on Tuesday against Roberto Carballés Baena, a clay court specialist. If things continue to progress as excpected, an in-form Djokovic in Australia means an extremely uncomfortable two weeks for the rest.