AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2023: Unvaccinated Djokovic back, year later

Novak Djokovic had just wrapped up last season by winning the ATP Finals for a record sixth time when, rather than looking ahead to 2023, his mind immediately went back to the way 2022 began: He was unable to compete in last year's Australian Open after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

That whole episode, and the decision to eschew the shots required for entry elsewhere, too, helped define his season and, perhaps to some, his legacy. So as he reflected on his triumph at the year-ending championships in Italy last November, Djokovic viewed it through the prism of what occurred in Australia last January.

“It feels deeply satisfying and, at the same time, huge relief, because of the circumstances that I have been through this year — situations earlier this year, of course, with Australia. ... That had an effect, obviously, on my start of the year,” the 35-year-old from Serbia said. “For the first several months, I was trying to find that balance, game-wise but also mentally, in order to be able to come back to the court and find that tennis level that I need.”

When the new Grand Slam season begins at the Australian Open on Monday morning (Sunday night EST), Djokovic will be back. Back in Australia — despite never getting inoculated against the coronavirus — thanks to government decisions to remove any vaccination requirements for visitors and to waive what could have been three-year ban for him as someone whose visa had been revoked. Back at a tournament he has dominated like no other, resulting in nine of his 21 major trophies, including the past three times he played there.

Back in position to strive for elite status and to challenge his great rival Rafael Nadal for supremacy in the Grand Slam title chase. Sure, it is Nadal who is the defending champion and who owns a men’s-record 22 majors. It is Djokovic, though, who will draw the most attention. And it is Djokovic who will be viewed as the favorite — and would have been, even had he not started off his trip to Australia by winning a tuneup title at Adelaide.

The lead-up to this Australian Open has been filled with talk about who will not be there: Serena Williams and Roger Federer ended their playing careers in 2022, as did Ash Barty; No. 1-ranked Carlos Alcaraz, former Australian Open finalist Marin Cilic and seven-time major champion Venus Williams are injured; former No. 1 and four-time Slam winner Naomi Osaka last played a completed match in August and announced on social media on Wednesday that she is pregnant and will be taking the year off. Another former top-ranked player, Simona Halep, is serving a provisional doping suspension.

Once play begins, the talk will squarely be about Djokovic, and most folks in the sport seem to agree he should be back in the field.

Nadal, for one, called it “good for tennis.”

“It’s nice to see cooler heads prevailing there, (after) politics got in the way,” former U.S. Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish said.

Frances Tiafoe, an American who reached the U.S. Open semifinals, said: “We want the biggest players playing in the biggest tournaments in the world, regardless of everything else. We’re trying to sell a product at the end of the day, and you want those big names at the big events."

One measure of how much things have changed, even as the coronavirus remains a part of daily life around the world: For the first time since 2020, players at the Australian Open will not need to self-report if they test positive for COVID-19; tournament director Craig Tiley said they’re simply being encouraged to stay away if they are sick.

Djokovic’s legal saga created plenty of drama — and drew plenty public expression of opinions, whether from those pleased he wasn’t allowed into the country or those protesting the outcome — a year ago, but the response to his return has been rather muted so far, with little fuss or fanfare.

“Everybody was very welcoming” upon his arrival, Djokovic said, declaring more than once: “I don’t hold a grudge.”

So what if he hasn’t won a Grand Slam match played on a hard court since 2021? (He was not at the U.S. Open because he couldn’t enter the United States as an unvaccinated foreigner, a policy that was recently extended, meaning Djokovic might be unable to enter the tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami again.)

So what if he is “only” ranked No. 5?

“In my mind, I always see myself as the best player in the world, of course. I have that kind of mentality and that kind of approach,” Djokovic said, “regardless of who is across the net, regardless of what the surface is, regardless of what season it is."

___

AP Sports Writer Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia, contributed to this report.

___

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

___

AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports