MELBOURNE, Australia — One by one, some of the world’s greatest tennis players took off their masks on Saturday for a day of news conferences, but they did not necessarily let their guards down.
It is a delicate situation, l’affaire Novak Djokovic. A fluid situation, too, with a federal court hearing scheduled for Sunday to try to determine whether the world’s No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player will have his visa restored and be allowed to defend his Australian Open title, despite not having been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Djokovic was released from detention at Park Hotel on Saturday. Media Day continued without the Melbourne Park champion. (Normally, he would have been included in the event — where players were alone on the dais and members of the news media were socially distanced — but Djokovic was not interviewed on Saturday given the situation.)
But he was still present — his case a feature of nearly every interview, as his fellow athletes played the question-and-answer game before the start of the Australian Open on Monday (with or without Djokovic).
Naomi Osaka, the Japanese star who has often been one of the sport’s most outspoken players on social issues, was more circumspect this time, saying the decision was ultimately up to the government and not to tennis players, but suggesting that she understood how the scrutiny felt.
“I know what it’s like to kind of be in his situation in a place that you’re getting asked about that person, to just see comments from other players,” she said. “It’s not the greatest thing. Just trying to keep it positive.”
But Rafael Nadal, one of Djokovic’s longtime rivals, was willing to play closer to the lines.
“I tell you one thing,” Nadal said. “It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that’s more important than the event, no? The player stays, then goes, and there are other players coming.
“Even Roger, Novak, myself, Bjorn Borg, who was amazing at his times, tennis keeps going,” he said, referring to Roger Federer. “Australian Open is more important than any player. If he’s playing finally, OK. If he’s not playing, the Australian Open will be a great Australian Open.”
Some players had probably prepared for the Djokovic query, having discussed the matter with their agents and entourages to make sure they understood the implications. But Nadal’s body language seemed as spontaneous as his freewheeling English on Saturday, full of gesticulations as he searched for the right words in his second language.
I asked him what lessons might be drawn from the Djokovic mess (I didn’t call it a mess).
Even though Nadal stated it had no impact on his personal preparations, he claimed things had gone too weit, dominating the headlines, and obscuring early-season results. Other players shared that sentiment, including Alex de Minaur of Australia, Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain and Emma Raducanu, the thoughtful British teenager who was last year’s shock United States Open champion.
“I feel that the situation has taken away a little bit from the great tennis being played over the summer,” Raducanu said, referring to the Australian summer.
She referred to Andy Murray’s story of joy, who reached the final in Sydney at the age of 34. This was his first tour final since 2019. He is even more remarkable now that he has an artificial hip. Raducanu could also have mentioned Nadal who won the singles title in Melbourne last Sunday after overcoming chronic foot problems and a prolonged break.
“Honestly I’m a little bit tired of the situation because I just believe that it’s important to talk about our sport, about tennis,” Nadal said of Djokovic’s case.
There have been many pretournament distractions throughout the years in Melbourne.
In the lead-up to the 2016 tournament, reports of widespread match-fixing dominated. In 2020, bush fires obscured much of tennis, as did the 2021 pandemic quarantine restrictions, which saw some players hit their balls against walls and mattresses in hotel rooms to maintain a rhythm (and sanity).
The difference between 2022 and its predecessors is the fact that the focus of 2022 is on a single player’s fate, not any other player. Djokovic is a nine time Australian Open champion in his record 355th week of being No. 1 and increasingly the consensus pick as the greatest men’s player of this golden era, despite still being tied with Nadal and Federer at 20 Grand Slam singles titles.
The French Open has belonged to Nadal — he has won an astounding 13 titles on the red clay in Paris — but the Australian Open has been Djokovic’s domain, and it will be interesting many years from now to see what effect the pandemic standoff in Melbourne has on his legacy, down under and beyond.
Nick Kyrgios, a young star who was not at the news conference because he is isolating in Sydney after testing positive for the coronavirus, offered support for Djokovic on Saturday in the podcast “No Boundaries.”
“We’re treating him like he’s a weapon of mass destruction at the moment; he’s literally here to play tennis,” Kyrgios said, suggesting that Australians were using Djokovic as a punching bag to vent their frustrations over all of their pandemic privations.
“As a human, he’s obviously feeling quite alienated,” said Kyrgios, who said Djokovic had reached out to him via social media to thank him for the support. “It’s a dangerous place to be when you feel like the world is against you, and you can’t do anything right.”
Alexander Zverev (a young star who is very close to Djokovic) argued against reading too much into the current drama on Saturday.
“He still won 20 Grand Slams. He still holds the No. 1. He still has the most Masters Series,” Zverev said. “Still for me one of the greatest players of all time. This is obviously not a pleasant thing for anyone, especially for him. But don’t question his legacy because of this.”
Legacies are not only about the results. They also include the intangibles, such as the memories and the joy that fans keep close after years of following a champion.
Djokovic can be complex and contradictory. She can be both selfless and kind. For example, she devotes considerable time and energy to the promotion of lower-ranked athletes and to supporting athletes from Serbia, the Balkan region, and other countries.
The Novak Djokovic standoff with Australia
Sometimes his outreach has backfired. His charity tennis tour, which he organized during the initial stages of the 2020 pandemic, was cancelled after he and others tested positive for the coronavirus. He also misread global moods by going out unmasked and not social distancing.
After he stated that he had tested positive again last month and was granted a Tennis Australia exemption, he now lives in a country and city with some of the most severe lockdowns and restrictions in the world. Also, where the coronavirus and hospitalization rates continue to rise rapidly. As the Australian government tries to deport him, it is arguing that his presence could compromise its vaccination campaign.
Vaccines are no panacea — Nadal, like Raducanu, recently contracted the coronavirus after playing in Abu Dhabi despite being inoculated. Vaccines have been shown to be effective against severe illnesses. Nadal remains an advocate of them, while Djokovic is an outlier, one of only three players in the top 100 who have not been vaccinated, according to the men’s tour.
Tennys Sandgren from the USA, a two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist and American Tennys, decided not to travel to Melbourne this year. He did not apply for an exemption. He has called the Australian case against Djokovic “a witch hunt,” and though it is hard to go that far, it seems quite clear that the Australian authorities have sent mixed signals and communicated poorly.
After all, the Victoria State government had granted Djokovic a medical exemption to the vaccination requirement. The federal government cancelled this exemption upon further investigation after Djokovic arrived at Melbourne on January 5.
“I mean, he had a visa, right?” Zverev said. “The Australian government and the Victorian government should have been clear what is going to happen beforehand.”
It is a good point — just as it is an excellent point that Djokovic, after he said he was informed about testing positive for the coronavirus last month, should never have agreed to an in-person interview with the French journalist Franck Ramella in Belgrade, Serbia, instead of isolating.
Mistakes have been made in many quarters in this affair, and the result is a controversy too big to ignore — one that has left little room, so far, for pure tennis stories, like the Australian veteran Samantha Stosur playing her final Australian Open in singles.
“Look, I think it’s all been a little bit messy; that’s probably an understatement,” Stosur said wistfully of l’affaire Djokovic. “Hopefully over the weekend, a decision can be made finally, whether you agree or don’t agree. He stays or he leaves. Whatever the case, it’s just got to be decided, and hopefully it’s not going to tarnish the rest of the Australian Open.”
Source: NY Times