This time last year, an air of uncertainty swirled around Novak Djokovic’s participation in the 2022 Australian Open. One that turned into a full-blown storm after he landed in Melbourne. Without a Covid vaccine and with a medical exemption that wasn’t of any worth, the Serb, then world No. 1, was barred from defending his title and deported.
A lot has changed for Djokovic, ranked fifth now, since, except his unvaccinated status. But that counts for little now with the Australian government removing its vaccine mandate and reversing Djokovic’s visa ban until 2025 that had accompanied the dramatic deportation.
The nine-time Australian Open champion will, therefore, reach Australia next week to tune up for title No. 10 at the season-opening Slam beginning January 16. No room for ambiguity this time.
“Part of the role we play is managing the on-court and the off-court, and last year was difficult for many,” said Craig Tiley, tournament director of the Australian Open.
“But we’re focused now on welcoming Novak back. I know he is looking forward to coming back. He’s a great champion, has won the most Australian Open titles, and he’s definitely the favourite coming in. He is also very popular in Australia and has a very big fan base. So, we’re all looking forward to seeing Novak back and for him to provide the same type of entertainment that he has before.”
The Djoker show had played out on a whole new tangent this year: questioned for hours at the airport in Melbourne, whisked away and kept for days at a detention centre, deported after a few round of court battles and less than 24 hours before the tournament began.
“If you take a step back, there are many circumstances around that situation. Would we have preferred that it did not happen? Absolutely. Did we do everything we possibly could at that time? Yes, we did,” said Tiley during a conversation organised by Sony Sports Network, the official broadcaster for Australian Open in India. “But once the tennis started it was magnificent, with Rafa (Nadal) and Ash (Barty) winning.”
Besides Djokovic’s presence, the main draw for the 2023 edition is the best in terms of strength, said Tiley. “If you’re outside the top 99 (ranking), you’ve got to qualify. You always want the best players to play. And that’s what we’ve got for 2023.”
The best, as per the present ATP rankings, is Carlos Alcaraz. The 19-year-old Spaniard leapfrogged into the champions’ club last year as he capped off a breathtaking season with a first Grand Slam title at the US Open. Melbourne Park hasn’t witnessed the best of Alcaraz yet because he crashed out in the second and third rounds in his previous two appearances there.
“We’ve got a lot of calls through our customer service centre about watching Alcaraz. Many people haven’t been able to watch him the last couple of years in Australia due to the pandemic restrictions. They’re going to really enjoy how he’s improved, and his particular athleticism and ability to win. There will be a great appreciation for his skill and his success. The fans are going to enjoy watching him,” said Tiley.
A champion they won’t be able to watch compete anymore is Barty who, shortly after giving Australia a first singles home Grand Slam champion since 1978 in January, chose to walk away from tennis at 25.
“She was and is a great champion who changed the way the women’s game is looked at,” said Tiley who is also the CEO of Tennis Australia. “Of course, we would’ve loved for Ash to play for longer. Ash has been very specific about what she wanted to do with her life, and we’ve supported that. She has been an athlete that we as a federation have supported since she was a young girl. I talk to Ash often, and in fact we’ve recently got into a partnership with her to help us develop young kids. We love having Ash around the game, and she was great for Australian tennis.”
Earlier this week, the Australian Open handed a singles wild card to Venus Williams, the seven-time Slam winner placed at 1007 in the WTA rankings. Tiley, though, justified the wild card to the 42-year-old who has played all of four singles matches this year.
“Venus is a great champion, a great promoter of the game, a tennis person through and through who has been great for the Australian Open. We want to protect her by letting her play in the main draw,” he said.