MELBOURNE, Australia — One after the other, among the world’s biggest tennis gamers took off their masks on Saturday for a day of stories conferences, however they didn’t essentially let their guards down.
It’s a delicate state of affairs, l’affaire Novak Djokovic. A fluid state of affairs, too, with a federal court hearing scheduled for Sunday to attempt to decide whether or not the world’s No. 1-ranked males’s tennis participant could have his visa restored and be allowed to defend his Australian Open title, regardless of not having been vaccinated towards the coronavirus.
On Saturday, because the cameras rolled and Djokovic returned to detention at the Park Hotel, Media Day went on with out the reigning champion at Melbourne Park. (Usually, he would have been included within the occasion — the place gamers had been alone on the dais and members of the information media had been socially distanced — however Djokovic was not interviewed on Saturday given the state of affairs.)
However he was nonetheless current — his case a function of practically each interview, as his fellow athletes performed the question-and-answer recreation earlier than the beginning of the Australian Open on Monday (with or with out Djokovic).
Naomi Osaka, the Japanese star who has usually been one of many sport’s most outspoken gamers on social points, was extra circumspect this time, saying the choice was in the end as much as the federal government and to not tennis gamers, however suggesting that she understood how the scrutiny felt.
“I do know what it’s prefer to form of be in his state of affairs in a spot that you simply’re getting requested about that particular person, to simply see feedback from different gamers,” she stated. “It’s not the best factor. Simply attempting to maintain it optimistic.”
However Rafael Nadal, considered one of Djokovic’s longtime rivals, was keen to play nearer to the traces.
“I inform you one factor,” Nadal stated. “It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is without doubt one of the finest gamers of the historical past, definitely. However there is no such thing as a one participant in historical past that’s extra vital than the occasion, no? The participant stays after which goes, and different gamers are coming.
“Even Roger, Novak, myself, Bjorn Borg, who was wonderful at his occasions, tennis retains going,” he stated, referring to Roger Federer. “Australian Open is extra vital than any participant. If he’s enjoying lastly, OK. If he’s not enjoying, the Australian Open can be a terrific Australian Open.”
Some gamers had absolutely ready for the Djokovic query, speaking over the difficulty with their brokers and entourages to attempt to get their messaging proper. However Nadal’s physique language appeared as spontaneous as his freewheeling English on Saturday, filled with gesticulations as he looked for the suitable phrases in his second language.
I requested him what classes is likely to be drawn from the Djokovic mess (I didn’t name it a large number).
Although Nadal stated it had no impact on his private preparation, he stated issues had gone too far, dominating the headlines and obscuring the early-season outcomes. Different gamers shared that sentiment, together with Alex de Minaur of Australia, Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain and Emma Raducanu, the considerate British teenager who was final yr’s shock United States Open champion.
“I really feel that the state of affairs has taken away slightly bit from the nice tennis being performed over the summer season,” Raducanu stated, referring to the Australian summer season.
She pointed to the feel-good story of Andy Murray, who made it into the ultimate in Sydney at age 34: his first tour remaining since 2019, and all of the extra exceptional as a result of he now has a man-made hip. Raducanu additionally may have talked about Nadal, who returned after continual foot issues and his newest prolonged break to win the singles title final Sunday at a preliminary ATP 250 occasion in Melbourne.
“Actually I’m slightly bit uninterested in the state of affairs as a result of I simply imagine that it’s vital to speak about our sport, about tennis,” Nadal stated of Djokovic’s case.
In reality, there was no scarcity of pretournament distractions by way of the years in Melbourne.
Stories of widespread match-fixing dominated the run-up to the 2016 match. Bush fires obscured a lot of the tennis in 2020, as did the pandemic quarantine restrictions in 2021, which decreased some gamers to hitting balls towards partitions and mattresses of their resort rooms to attempt to preserve some type of rhythm (and sanity).
However what separates 2022 from its predecessors is that the main focus is on the destiny of a single participant, and never simply any participant. Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion, in his file 355th week as No. 1 and more and more the consensus decide as the best males’s participant of this golden period, regardless of nonetheless being tied with Nadal and Federer at 20 Grand Slam singles titles.
The French Open has belonged to Nadal — he has gained an astounding 13 titles on the crimson clay in Paris — however the Australian Open has been Djokovic’s area, and it will likely be attention-grabbing a few years from now to see what impact the pandemic standoff in Melbourne has on his legacy, down below and past.
Nick Kyrgios, a younger star who was not on the information convention as a result of he’s isolating in Sydney after testing optimistic for the coronavirus, provided help for Djokovic on Saturday within the podcast “No Boundaries.”
“We’re treating him like he’s a weapon of mass destruction for the time being; he’s actually right here to play tennis,” Kyrgios stated, suggesting that Australians had been utilizing Djokovic as a punching bag to vent their frustrations over all of their pandemic privations.
“As a human, he’s clearly feeling fairly alienated,” stated Kyrgios, who stated Djokovic had reached out to him by way of social media to thank him for the help. “It’s a harmful place to be if you really feel just like the world is towards you, and you’ll’t do something proper.”
Alexander Zverev, one other younger star who’s near Djokovic, argued on Saturday towards studying an excessive amount of into the present drama.
“He nonetheless gained 20 Grand Slams. He nonetheless has probably the most weeks at No. 1. He nonetheless has probably the most Masters Sequence,” Zverev stated. “Nonetheless for me one of many biggest gamers of all time. I imply, that is clearly not a pleasant factor for everybody, for him particularly. However don’t query his legacy due to this.”
Legacies are, in fact, not nearly outcomes. They’re additionally concerning the intangibles: the reminiscences and the delight that followers maintain shut after years of following a champion.
Djokovic is a fancy, usually contradictory determine who could be each self-interested and magnanimous, devoting, for instance, appreciable time and power to selling the reason for lower-ranked gamers and to serving to help athletes from Serbia and the broader Balkan area.
The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia
His outreach has typically backfired. The charity tennis tour he organized within the early phases of the pandemic in 2020 needed to be canceled after he and another gamers examined optimistic for the coronavirus, and he misinterpret the worldwide temper by partying unmasked and with out social distancing.
Now, after he stated he examined optimistic once more final month and acquired a vaccination exemption from Tennis Australia, he has arrived in a metropolis and nation the place the lockdowns and well being restrictions have been among the most extreme on the planet, and the place the coronavirus case and hospitalization charges have been rising quickly. The Australian authorities, because it tries to deport him after canceling his visa a second time, is arguing that his continued presence dangers compromising its vaccination marketing campaign.
Vaccines are not any panacea — Nadal, like Raducanu, not too long ago contracted the coronavirus after enjoying in Abu Dhabi regardless of being inoculated. However vaccines have proven protective against severe illness. Nadal stays an advocate of them, whereas Djokovic is an outlier, considered one of solely three gamers within the prime 100 who haven’t been vaccinated, in keeping with the boys’s tour.
One of many others, the American Tennys Sandgren, a two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist, selected to not make the journey to Melbourne this yr and didn’t search an exemption. He has known as the Australian case towards Djokovic “a witch hunt,” and although it’s arduous to go that far, it appears fairly clear that the Australian authorities have despatched blended alerts and communicated poorly.
The Victoria State authorities, in any case, had issued Djokovic a medical exemption from the vaccination requirement, which the federal authorities canceled upon additional investigation when Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on Jan. 5.
“I imply, he had a visa, proper?” Zverev stated. “The Australian authorities and the Victorian authorities ought to have been clear what’s going to occur beforehand.”
It’s a good level — simply because it is a wonderful level that Djokovic, after he stated he was knowledgeable about testing optimistic for the coronavirus final month, ought to by no means have agreed to an in-person interview with the French journalist Franck Ramella in Belgrade, Serbia, as an alternative of isolating.
Errors have been made in lots of quarters on this affair, and the consequence is an argument too large to disregard — one which has left little room, to this point, for pure tennis tales, just like the Australian veteran Samantha Stosur enjoying her remaining Australian Open in singles.
“Look, I believe it’s all been slightly bit messy; that’s most likely an understatement,” Stosur stated wistfully of l’affaire Djokovic. “Hopefully over the weekend, a choice could be made lastly, whether or not you agree or don’t agree. He stays or he goes. Regardless of the case, it’s simply obtained to be determined, and hopefully it’s not going to tarnish the remainder of the Australian Open.”