Monday, November 28

Djokovic’s story won’t go away, but at the Australian Open the game must go on | Novak Djokovic

HI was nowhere and he was everywhere. Etched into the pavement and lingering in the air, each fragile fragment of an atmosphere that carries resentment and relief and a bit in between. Melbourne Park is the home of Novak Djokovic’s swagger, the place where he won his first Grand Slam and has enjoyed the most success of his career to date.

His psyche, that controversial soul of his, is seared into the seats of Rod Laver Arena, where he has lifted nine singles trophies but won’t be chasing a 10th this year. Now it appears that he has been cast as Voldemort, the Dark Lord Who Must Not Be Named, at least by almost all non-Serb players.

Naomi Osaka was the first guest to offer her two cents “Do you think Djokovic should play at the Australian Open this year?” a reporter asked after her first-round win over Colombia’s Camila Osorio. “Is my opinion going to help anything?” She answered. The media insisted. But what did other players think of the situation? “Yeah, I’m going to move on from that,” he said. Thanks though.

Gaël Monfils simply would not allow himself to be drawn. Rafael Nadal, the only former champion left in the draw, was a bit more expansive.

“I think the situation has been a disaster,” he said after overwhelming American Marcos Giron, a resounding victory in his own campaign to a record 21 Grand Slam titles. “He’s not the only one who probably did bad things in that case. There is more [parties] responsible in this terrible situation that we have faced in the last two weeks, but he is one of those responsible.”

And then: “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

The Serbian competitors, however, were in a grilling mood. Dušan Lajović, who eliminated Márton Fucsovics in five sets, said “the way he was treated was terribly wrong”.

Laslo Đere, who was knocked out by Denis Shapovalov, lamented a “true catastrophic situation”. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I think not just the Serbs, I think the whole world saw it and they will probably have a new or different opinion about Australia.”

Japan's Naomi Osaka speaks at a press conference at Melbourne Park in Melbourne.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka would not get involved in the Djokovic debate. Photograph: Vince Caligiuri/TENNIS AUSTRALIA/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Miomir Kecmanović busied himself demanding reprisals on behalf of his compatriot.

“I think it was not handled well and things could have gone much better and calmer for everyone,” said the 22-year-old, who is ranked 77th. “It’s definitely terrible that they had to kick him out like this. We said that we are going to give everything we have, try to avenge him in some way and make him proud.”

Some 24 hours ago, Kecmanović was still scheduled to play his first match against Djokovic under the lights of Rod Laver. In the absence of his box office opponent, he was relegated to 1573 Arena in the afternoon sun and in front of far fewer spectators. A grand total of 104 clearers saw him close out the third set against Djokovic’s replacement in the draw, Salvatore Caruso.

The Italian had called himself “the world’s most famous lucky loser.” Kecmanović must also have felt at least a little lucky, as he advanced to the second round in large part because he was up against World No. 150 instead of World No. 1. Serbian supporters were few and far between on Monday, a stark contrast to the scenes outside Carlton’s Park Hotel where Djokovic was held before his unsuccessful court challenge to have his canceled visa reinstated for the second time. But there were two men clapping enthusiastically after each point at one end of the court. At the other end was a group of five, who let out an odd chant and earned a handshake from Kecmanović after the match for their efforts.

Less than three hours later, Alexander Zverev and Daniel Altmaier were waging an all-German match at their original venue. They entertained a courtesy crowd on Center Court. There were no jeers or nasty comments; he-who-must-not-be-named was not present.

It was a stark contrast to last year’s final. Minutes after Djokovic beat Daniil Medvedev for the 2021 title, the crowd booed during the presentation ceremony, kicked off by the Tennis Australia president’s mention of covid-19 vaccinations. Victoria had already endured one of the world’s most grueling lockdowns and had only just come out of a second (there have been six) and vaccination was a hot topic.

Djokovic had also been a divisive talking point, having contracted the virus seven months earlier on his unauthorized Adria Tour, which featured a now-infamous dance party. The event was branded a super spreader and scaled back, while it subsequently drew criticism for sending Tennis Australia some pre-tournament suggestions on how they could improve conditions for the large number of players in hotel quarantine.

Monday’s atmosphere was cordial, but it was also charged with remnants of a history that just won’t go away, the irritating cigarette butt that can’t be thrown away because no one can locate a container.

“I hope that in the future he [Djokovic] he will be the best tennis player in history,” Lajović said. “And that this will only be seen as a setback on his path to being the best tennis player to ever play the sport. This is my opinion, and I don’t think there is more to add.”

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