Novak Djokovic returns to Rod Laver Arena to start his Australian Open campaign on Tuesday night, but tennis fans at Melbourne Park for the day session were split over the reception he might receive.
The nine-time Australian Open champion was deported on the eve of last year’s Grand Slam event because he was not vaccinated against Covid-19.
He received a three-year ban from Australia after a drawn-out series of court hearings, but that was waived in November to enable his return for the 2023 edition where he will attempt to equal Rafael Nadal’s record of 22 Grand Slam tournament wins.
The Serbian’s attempts to compete with a medical exemption in 2022 angered many Australians in a city that endured some of the longest lockdowns in the world at the height of the pandemic.
But on a hot morning 12 months later, most believed it was time to move on.
“I don’t know how he goes from being a national threat a year ago to being allowed to play, but that’s a discussion for another time,” said Goran, draped in the Serbian flag cheering Laslo Djere in the opening day two match on court 14.
“He’s gonna win it. He’s going to win his 10th and he’s going to secure himself as the best of all time. It’s never going to be close. He’s not going to drop a set.”
The small contingent of Serbian fans on the outside court were making plenty of good-hearted noise, though they were gently warned by security not to wave their national flags during a rally.
Australian Open organisers have said any fans targeting Djokovic, who begins his quest against Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena, would be slapped with potential tournament bans.
‘I’m not a fan’
Fans taking their seats on Rod Laver Arena for the day session said they were not sure whether Djokovic would be received as warmly as in Adelaide, where he won a tune-up tournament this month.
“I’m not a fan of Djokovic but you can’t deny his genius,” said Australian spectator Rob, who like other fans only wanted to give their first name.
“Emotionally, he rubs me the wrong way. But I think in terms of what happened last year, it is literally in the past,” added his friend Tom. “I don’t think there isn’t any reason that he shouldn’t be playing.”
Rob described why he thought Djokovic had never historically received as warm a reception as great rivals Nadal and Roger Federer in Melbourne.
“I think it’s about demeanour,” he said. “It’s just a personal preference, in my view, for the way that Roger, Rafa and Ash (Barty) would conduct themselves.
“I’m reading ‘The Remains of the Day’ at the moment and the butler talks about dignity all the time. And I think that’s a quality that those players have.”
Husband and wife Connie and Rocco couldn’t agree on what sort of reception he would receive.
“I think he’ll get a good reception,” said Connie. “It’s time to move on and I’m looking forward to seeing him back here, I’ve seen him play here almost every year.”
Rocco disagreed. “I think he will get a few boos, but we’re waiting to see.”
Many of the early contingent of Serbian fans at Melbourne Park did not have tickets for the centre court night session, but said they would watch on the big screens in the gardens outside.
“Hopefully he will get applause and cheers because he shouldn’t have been kicked out,” said Goran.
“But I was at the charity match with (Nick) Kyrgios the other night, and he got a warm reception. The crowd seem to love him. So it’s good to have him back.”