MELBOURNE, Australia — One after the other, among the world’s biggest tennis gamers took off their masks on Saturday for a day of reports conferences, however they didn’t essentially let their guards down.
It’s a delicate scenario, l’affaire Novak Djokovic. A fluid scenario, 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 may have his visa restored and be allowed to defend his Australian Open title, regardless of not having been vaccinated in opposition to 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 have been alone on the dais and members of the information media have been socially distanced — however Djokovic was not interviewed on Saturday given the scenario.)
However he was nonetheless current — his case a function of practically each interview, as his fellow athletes performed the question-and-answer sport earlier than the beginning of the Australian Open on Monday (with or with out Djokovic).
Naomi Osaka, the Japanese star who has typically 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 scenario in a spot that you simply’re getting requested about that individual, to only see feedback from different gamers,” she mentioned. “It’s not the best factor. Simply attempting to maintain it constructive.”
However Rafael Nadal, one in all Djokovic’s longtime rivals, was prepared to play nearer to the strains.
“I inform you one factor,” Nadal mentioned. “It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is without doubt one of the greatest gamers of the historical past, no doubt. However there isn’t 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 superb at his occasions, tennis retains going,” he mentioned, referring to Roger Federer. “Australian Open is extra vital than any participant. If he’s taking part in lastly, OK. If he’s not taking part in, the Australian Open will probably be a fantastic Australian Open.”
Some gamers had certainly ready for the Djokovic query, speaking over the problem 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, stuffed with gesticulations as he looked for the fitting phrases in his second language.
I requested him what classes may be drawn from the Djokovic mess (I didn’t name it a multitude).
Although Nadal mentioned it had no impact on his private preparation, he mentioned 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 12 months’s shock United States Open champion.
“I really feel that the scenario has taken away slightly bit from the nice tennis being performed over the summer season,” Raducanu mentioned, 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 last since 2019, and all of the extra outstanding as a result of he now has a man-made hip. Raducanu additionally might have talked about Nadal, who returned after power 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 scenario as a result of I simply consider that it’s vital to speak about our sport, about tennis,” Nadal mentioned of Djokovic’s case.
In fact, there was no scarcity of pretournament distractions by the years in Melbourne.
Reviews of widespread match-fixing dominated the run-up to the 2016 event. 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 in opposition to partitions and mattresses of their resort rooms to attempt to preserve some form 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 report 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 purple clay in Paris — however the Australian Open has been Djokovic’s area, and it will likely be fascinating 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 constructive for the coronavirus, supplied assist for Djokovic on Saturday within the podcast “No Boundaries.”
“We’re treating him like he’s a weapon of mass destruction in the mean time; he’s actually right here to play tennis,” Kyrgios mentioned, suggesting that Australians have 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,” mentioned Kyrgios, who mentioned Djokovic had reached out to him through social media to thank him for the assist. “It’s a harmful place to be if you really feel just like the world is in opposition to you, and you’ll’t do something proper.”
Alexander Zverev, one other younger star who’s near Djokovic, argued on Saturday in opposition to 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 mentioned. “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 in regards to the intangibles: the recollections and the delight that followers maintain shut after years of following a champion.
Djokovic is a fancy, typically contradictory determine who may 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 assist athletes from Serbia and the broader Balkan area.
The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia
His outreach has generally 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 constructive for the coronavirus, and he misinterpret the worldwide temper by partying unmasked and with out social distancing.
Now, after he mentioned he examined constructive once more final month and obtained 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 earth, 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 aren’t any panacea — Nadal, like Raducanu, not too long ago contracted the coronavirus after taking part in 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, one in all 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 12 months and didn’t search an exemption. He has referred to as the Australian case in opposition to Djokovic “a witch hunt,” and although it’s exhausting to go that far, it appears fairly clear that the Australian authorities have despatched combined indicators 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 mentioned. “The Australian authorities and the Victorian authorities ought to have been clear what will occur beforehand.”
It’s a good level — simply because it is a wonderful level that Djokovic, after he mentioned he was knowledgeable about testing constructive 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 a substitute of isolating.
Errors have been made in lots of quarters on this affair, and the end result is an argument too massive to disregard — one which has left little room, to this point, for pure tennis tales, just like the Australian veteran Samantha Stosur taking part in her last Australian Open in singles.
“Look, I believe it’s all been slightly bit messy; that’s in all probability an understatement,” Stosur mentioned wistfully of l’affaire Djokovic. “Hopefully over the weekend, a choice may be made lastly, whether or not you agree or don’t agree. He stays or he goes. Regardless of the case, it’s simply received to be determined, and hopefully it’s not going to tarnish the remainder of the Australian Open.”