MELBOURNE, Australia — Flanked by safety personnel and members of his touring entourage, Novak Djokovic strode briskly via a near-empty Tullamarine Airport, his eyes fastened on the white tiles shining beneath his ft. A KN95 masks hid a big portion of his face, however there was nonetheless no hiding the utter dejection.

The 2022 Australian Open was simply hours from kicking off, but the reigning males’s champion, and then-world No. 1, was making ready to depart Melbourne on an Emirates flight sure for Dubai, earlier than jetting again house to Serbia.

Djokovic had simply been embroiled in an 11-day authorized battle wherein he tried to have his Australian visa reinstated following its cancellation. The unvaccinated tennis star finally failed in his bid, and Djokovic was deported and successfully handed a three-year ban from the nation, with Australian immigration regulation stopping him from reapplying for a visa till not less than 2025.

For one of many few events in his skilled profession, Djokovic left Melbourne a defeated man. He hadn’t performed a single minute on court docket, but he appeared extra drained than within the instant aftermath of any of his 9 Australian Open titles.

Novak Djokovic is shuttled to Melbourne Airport after being deported from Australia in 2022. James Ross/AAP by way of AP

“It is a kind of issues that stays with you for, I assume, the remainder of your life. You possibly can’t neglect these occasions,” Djokovic defined. “It was not simple for me, for my household, crew, or anyone who’s near me.”

Later, he informed 9News Melbourne: “It was so massive within the media that I simply couldn’t combat it. I used to be drawn right into a storm in media worldwide that was associated to something to do with COVID and the vaccine. Every thing bought out of hand after which I used to be labelled as this or that. I turned the villain of the world, which is clearly a horrible place to be in as an athlete. I stayed for a number of weeks at house, did not actually go round an excessive amount of. I simply hoped the scenario would relax.”

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Djokovic’s ignominious exit was met with assist among the many majority of Australians, in significantly Melburnians who have been topic to strict lockdowns all through 2021. There had been a sense amongst locals that Djokovic could be receiving preferential remedy by the Australian authorities if he have been in a position to participate within the Australian Open, which might have sparked additional public outrage.

A lot has modified over the previous 12 months. Australia, like many countries, has dropped its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for overseas arrivals. And, simply as crucially for Djokovic, his three-year ban was reversed in November, with Australian immigration minister Andrew Giles confirming Djokovic could be granted a short lived visa to enter the nation and compete within the 2023 match, to which the Serbian star declared: “I couldn’t have acquired higher information.”

Not solely does it supply Djokovic the prospect to attract even with Rafael Nadal for essentially the most main wins in males’s tennis historical past, however there is a chance for redemption. A chance to win again followers. Final yr’s dramatic deportation saga was simply one other incident in what has been a checkered latest previous for Djokovic, and his fame has seemingly taken beating upon beating.

Novak Djokovic takes photographs with followers on Rod Laver Area. Graham Denholm/Getty Photos

In January 2020, shortly after his triumph at Melbourne Park, the tennis world was thrust right into a close to five-month hiatus as COVID-19 started wreaking havoc across the globe. In an effort to stay match, Djokovic proposed the concept of an exhibition-style match in his house area of the Balkans. The ATP gave it the inexperienced mild, permitting it to happen between June and July.

The occasion, dubbed the “Adria Tour,” promptly got here below heavy criticism for the dearth of social-distancing protocols at stadiums, with hundreds of followers seen mingling with out face masks. A video additionally circulated displaying Djokovic and a number of different tennis stars partying on the Lafayette Delicacies Cabaret Membership in Belgrade. Days later, Djokovic and spouse Jelena introduced they’d each contracted COVID-19. The rest of the occasion was canceled instantly.

A number of months later, with the mud of the Adria Tour lastly settled, Djokovic arrived in New York because the overwhelming favourite for the US Open. The absence of Roger Federer and Nadal meant Djokovic was certainly one of simply three Grand Slam champions — together with Andy Murray and Marin Cilic — in the complete males’s draw. It was his match to lose.

However Djokovic’s identify once more made headlines for all of the mistaken causes following his fourth-round match towards Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta. After dropping his serve within the eleventh sport of the opening set, and falling behind 5-6, Djokovic took a spare ball out of his pocket and slapped it firmly behind the court docket, placing a linesperson within the throat. Djokovic instantly raised his arm to sign his lack of intent earlier than speeding over to help. Nonetheless, it left match referee Soeren Friemel with little selection however to disqualify him from the occasion and strip him of the $250,000 prize cash he would have acquired for reaching the final 16.

By the point January 2021 rolled round, when Djokovic was boarding that flight out of Australia, his fame was at an all-time low. The query everybody has been pondering forward of this yr’s match was simply how would he be acquired.

Novak Djokovic speaks to media forward of the 2023 Australian Open. James D. Morgan/Getty Photos

It was solely ever going to go certainly one of two methods. Djokovic might have returned to Australia holding a extreme grudge with the nation, authorities and other people over what he believed was mistreatment in 2022. He might have proven little regret for a way final yr unfolded and even appeared to bait crowds throughout his matches. And whereas it might need made for enthralling viewing, Djokovic stated it wasn’t the precise path to take. “If I do maintain the grudges [and] if I am not capable of transfer on, I would not be right here,” he stated.

As a substitute, Djokovic orchestrated a public relations masterstroke. He opted out of the United Cup in Sydney in favor of the Adelaide Worldwide, quietly dipping his toes into the waters earlier than flying to Melbourne for a charity match.

He squared off towards native hero Nick Kyrgios in an exhibition on the eve of the Australian Open — one which offered out in simply 58 minutes. Djokovic acquired rapturous applause as he made his extremely anticipated return to Rod Laver Area, the court docket the place he has loved the overwhelming majority of his skilled success. He endeared himself to the Australian public by laughing and joking alongside Kyrgios, high-fiving ball youngsters and interacting with followers, earlier than talking extremely of the nation.

“It is nice to be again right here in Australia. That is the court docket and the stadium the place I created one of the best reminiscences of my skilled tennis profession,” he stated. “I used to be very emotional coming into the court docket. I did not understand how that was going to go after the occasions of final yr. I am very grateful for the type vitality and reception, love and assist I bought.”

Melbourne is a multicultural metropolis, a metropolis wherein greater than 30,000 Serbian Australians name house. Djokovic will nearly actually be boosted by the ever-present crowds of vocal Serbian supporters for each match he performs inside Rod Laver Area.

Djokovic opens his Australian Open marketing campaign Tuesday night towards Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena. He’ll once more strut his stuff on heart court docket, the place he appears to increase his streak of singles wins on Australian soil to 35 matches.

That highway to redemption begins now.

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