As the Australian Open approaches, there seems to be only one story

MELBOURNE, Australia – Some of the world’s biggest tennis players took off their masks one by one on Saturday to hold daily press conferences, but they didn’t necessarily disappoint their guards.

It’s a delicate situation, l’affaire Novak Djokovic. The situation is also troubled when a federal court hearing is scheduled for Sunday to try to determine whether the world’s number one male tennis player will have his visa renewed and allowed to defend his Australian Open title even though he has not been vaccinated. coronavirus.

On Saturday, when the cameras turned and Djokovic returned to custody at the Park Hotel, Media Day continued without the reigning champion in Melbourne Park. (Normally, he would be included in the event – where the players were on the stage alone and the members of the news media were socially distant – but Djokovic was not interviewed on Saturday due to the situation.)

But he was still present – his case was part of almost every interview, as his fellow athletes played a question-and-answer game (with or without Djokovic) on the Monday before the Australian Open.

Naomi Osaka, a Japanese star who is often one of the sport’s most outspoken social players, was more cautious this time, saying the decision was ultimately up to the government, not the tennis players, but she indicated she understood how control felt.

“I know what it’s like to be in his situation where you are asked about the man, just to see the comments from the other players,” she said. “It’s not the best thing.” I’m just trying to keep it positive. “

But Rafael Nadal, one of Djokovic’s age-old rivals, was willing to play closer to the lines.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Nadal said. “It is quite clear that Novak Djokovic is undoubtedly one of the best players in history. But there’s no player in history who’s more important than an event, is there? The player stays and then leaves and other players come.

“Even Roger, Novak, me, Bjorn Borg, who was amazing at the time, tennis goes on,” he said, referring to Roger Federer. “The Australian Open is more important than any player. If he finally plays, OK. If he doesn’t play, the Australian Open will be a great Australian Open. “

Some players must have prepared for Djokovic’s question, talking to their agents and escorts to try to report their messages correctly. But Nadal’s body language seemed as spontaneous as his free English on Saturday, full of gestures as he searched for the right words in his second language.

I asked him what lessons could be learned from Djokovic’s disorder (I didn’t call it a disorder).

Although Nadal said it had no effect on his personal training, he said things went too far, dominating the headlines and obscuring the results at the start of the season. Other players shared the feeling, including Alex de Minaur of Australia, Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain and Emma Raducan, a thoughtful British teenager who was last year’s shocking United States Open winner.

“I feel that the situation has deteriorated a bit from the great tennis that has been played over the summer,” Raducanu said, referring to the Australian summer.

She pointed to the good story of Andy Murray, who reached the final in Sydney at the age of 34: his first tour final since 2019, and all the more remarkable that he now has an artificial hip. Raducan may also have mentioned Nadal, who returned after chronic leg problems and the last extended break to win the singles title last Sunday at the ATP 250 preliminary event in Melbourne.

“Honestly, I’m a little tired of that situation because I just believe it’s important to talk about our sport, tennis,” Nadal said of Djokovic’s case.

Truth be told, during the years in Melbourne there was no shortage of distractions in the tournament.

Prior to the tournament in 2016, reports of extensive match influence dominated. Bush’s fires covered much of tennis in 2020, as did the restrictions on the pandemic quarantine of 2021, which forced some players to hit balls into walls and mattresses in their hotel rooms to try to maintain a certain rhythm (and common sense).

But what sets 2022 apart from its predecessors is that it focuses on the fate of one player, and not just one. Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion, in his record 355th week as the number one and increasingly consensual choice for the best male player of this golden era, although he is still undecided with Nadal and Federer in 20 grand slam singles titles.

The French Open belonged to Nadal – he won a staggering 13 titles in Paris’s red clay – but the Australian Open was Djokovic’s domain and it will be interesting to see for many years the impact of the pandemic stalemate in Melbourne. on his legacy, below and beyond.

Nick Kyrgios, a young star who was not at the press conference because he isolated himself in Sydney after a positive coronavirus test, offered Djokovic support 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 are using Djokovic as a punching bag to free their frustrations from all their pandemic hardships.

“As a person, he obviously feels quite alienated,” said Kyrgios, who said Djokovic had contacted him via social media to thank him for his support. “It’s a dangerous place when you feel like the world is against you and you can’t do anything right.”

Alexander Zverev, another young star close to Djokovic, argued on Saturday against over-reading the current drama.

“He still won 20 grand slams. He still has the most weeks at number 1. He still has the most Masters Series, “said Zverev. “Still one of the best players of all time for me. I don’t think it’s obviously nice for everyone, especially for him. But don’t question his legacy because of that.”

Of course, heritage is not just about results. They also relate to intangible things: memories and the joy that fans have close after years of following the champion.

Djokovic is a complex, often contradictory figure who can be both confident and generous, devoting considerable time and energy, for example, to promoting the affairs of lower-ranking players and helping to support athletes from Serbia and the wider Balkan region.

Its reach sometimes failed. The charity tennis tour, which he organized in the early stages of the 2020 pandemic, had to be canceled after he and some other players tested positive for coronavirus and misinterpreted the world’s mood by having a party without camouflage and without social distancing.

Now, after saying he had tested positive again last month and received an exemption from Tennis Australia, he has arrived in a city and country where locks and health restrictions are some of the most serious in the world and where coronavirus is the case. and the number of hospitalizations is growing rapidly. The Australian government, which is trying to deport him after revoking his visa for the second time, argues that his continued presence risks jeopardizing her vaccination campaign.

Vaccines are not everything – Nadal, like Raducan, recently contracted coronavirus after playing in Abu Dhabi, even though he was vaccinated. However, vaccines have been shown to protect against serious illness. Nadal remains their supporter, while Djokovic is a remote, one of only three players in the top 100 who have not been vaccinated, according to the men’s tour.

One of the others, the American Tennys Sandgren, a two-quarter quarterfinalist of the Australian Open, decided not to make the trip to Melbourne this year and did not ask for an exception. He called the Australian case against Djokovic a “witch hunt”, and although it is difficult to go that far, it seems quite clear that the Australian authorities have sent mixed signals and poor communication.

The Victoria government, moreover, granted Djokovic a medical exemption from the vaccination requirement, which the federal government lifted following further investigations when Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on January 5.

“I mean, he had a visa, didn’t he?” Zverev said. “The Australian Government and the Victorian Government should have made it clear in advance what would happen.”

It’s a good note – just as excellent that Djokovic, after saying he was informed of a positive coronavirus test last month, never agreed to a personal interview with French journalist Franck Ramella in Belgrade, Serbia instead of isolation.

There have been many mistakes in this affair and the result is too much controversy to ignore – one that has so far left little room for pure tennis stories, such as Australian veteran Samantha Stosur, who plays her Australian Open final in singles. .

“Look, I think it was all a bit chaotic; that’s probably an understatement,” Stosur said longingly about l’affaire Djokovic. however, it must be decided and hopefully it will not tarnish the rest of the Australian Open. “

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