Novak Djokovic’s season, derailed in January when he was deported from Australia, finally starts on Monday in Dubai with the world number one insisting players in the locker room “have been positive and welcoming” on his return.
Djokovic missed the chance to win a 10th Australian Open, and 21st Grand Slam, due to the cancellation of his visa in Melbourne and eventual deportation as a result of not being vaccinated.
He returns to the tour this week in the Emirates, where he will be competing for the first time since the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid last December.
Ahead of his opening round against Italian wildcard Lorenzo Musetti, Djokovic spoke to reporters on Sunday night about how it feels to be back on the tennis circuit, and whether there has been any negative reaction from his peers.
“So far here most of the players that I’ve seen have been positive and welcoming. It’s nice to see obviously. I can’t say that was the case in Australia. It was a little bit strange. But here it’s well so far,” the 34-year-old Serb said.
Dubai organisers have dubbed the first day of the ATP event ‘Magnificent Monday’ and a couple of other marquee entrants, Marin Cilic and Andy Murray, will also be in action.
But all eyes will be on Djokovic who last played in Serbia’s Davis Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia.
Djokovic, who saw Rafael Nadal win in Australia to claim a 21st major, is able to play in Dubai as a coronavirus vaccine is not a requirement to enter the United Arab Emirates.
The Serbian is a five-time winner in Dubai and he finally starts his season with a point to prove and his number one ranking under threat.
Even if he wins in Dubai, Djokovic could lose the top spot, which he has held since February 2020, to Daniil Medvedev, who is in action this week almost 15,000km away in Acapulco.
Even if Djokovic defends his status this week, his refusal to get vaccinated could cause problems and cost him ranking points, particularly with two Masters tournaments coming up in the United States.
– ‘Follow the rules’ –
He is on the entry list at Indian Wells from March 7 to 20, even though it is currently restricted to vaccinated players. That is followed by the Miami Open from March 21 to April 3.
“I just have to follow the rules. Whatever tournament that I’m able to play, I’ll be trying to get to that country and play the tournament,” Djokovic said Sunday.
“I really can’t choose right now. It’s really about where I can go and play. Wherever I have an opportunity, I’ll be using probably that opportunity and going to play because this is what I do, it’s what I love to do still.”
There are still three more Grand Slam tournaments to play — French Open,, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Djokovic is the defending champion at Roland Garros and the All England Club.
“We all hope that the health crisis will evolve in a positive direction, but if that does not change, he will need a vaccination pass and therefore Novak Djokovic will not be with us,” at the French Open, French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu told RTL radio on Sunday.
Djokovic and Musetti have history, with the 19-year-old taking the first two sets off the Serb when they met in last year’s French Open.
Musetti eventually retired due to injury with Djokovic leading the last 16 clash 6-7 (7/9), 6-7 (2/7), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0.
Cilic, a former world number three, will open the action on Monday against Czech qualifier Jiri Vesely.
Murray is on court immediately before Djokovic, against Australian Christopher O’Connell.
At 34, former world number one Murray is playing with a metal hip after surgery in 2019, and won just a single game as he was crushed by Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in Qatar last week.
The second seed Andrey Rublev, fresh from a ninth career title in Marseille at the weekend, faces Briton Dan Evans on Tuesday.
Number three Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime has been drawn against Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili and number four Italian Jannik Sinner will play Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
Last year’s Dubai winner Aslan Karatsev will face American Mackenzie McDonald.