MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic has won the Australian Open a record nine times but a 10th title in Melbourne this month will be the most satisfying of all after his humiliating ban a year ago.
Twelve months ago the Serbian superstar, one of the finest men’s tennis players of all time, was at the center of a global firestorm as he fought deportation from Australia.
The 35-year-old’s refusal to get vaccinated against COVID sparked a high-profile legal battle which eventually saw him turfed out of the country on the eve of the Grand Slam.
In his absence his great rival Rafael Nadal won the Australian Open for a record 21st major crown.
Some people, including former world No. 1 Jim Courier, felt Djokovic was the victim of politics in what was an election year in Australia.
Djokovic, who was held for a while in an immigration detention center as the saga played out, now goes into next week’s showpiece as the red-hot favorite to win it.
If he does, it will be his 22nd Grand Slam title, tying him with Nadal at the top of the all-time men’s list.
Many in Australia were glad to see the back of Djokovic in January 2022, but there are indications that public sentiment has softened since.
He enjoyed strong support from the crowd as he blew away the rest of the field last week to win in Adelaide for the 92nd ATP title of his career — level with the Spaniard Nadal.
“The support I have been getting in the last 10 days was something that I don’t think I’ve experienced too many times in my life,” Djokovic said after saving a match point in the final against Sebastian Korda on Sunday.
Last month, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a survey showed 30 percent of Australians now supported him being allowed into the country, up from 14 percent in January last year.
Along with his ominous form, the cards look to have fallen Djokovic’s way this time.
There are indications that age and injury are catching up with Nadal. The 36-year-old has lost six of his past seven matches stretching back to the US Open, where he went out in the last 16 to Frances Tiafoe.
Roger Federer is no longer in the picture, having retired last year, and world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz — the new kid on the block — is out of Melbourne with injury.
Daniil Medvedev, the losing finalist in 2021 and 2022, is the most obvious threat aside from Nadal, having beaten Djokovic in the 2021 US Open final to win his lone major.
Djokovic though outclassed the Russian 6-3, 6-4 last week in the Adelaide semifinals and Medvedev has dropped to eighth in the world.
Mats Wilander, a former world No. 1 who won seven Grand Slam titles, believes Djokovic is “pretty heavy favorite” in Melbourne and will be doubly motivated by what happened last year.
“I don’t think that we have ever seen a more hungry tennis player in terms of wanting to get revenge or wanting to win matches,” the 58-year-old Swede told Eurosport.
“I don’t think anyone has ever been hungrier than Novak is going to be.”
But Patrick Mouratoglou, who was the long-time coach of the now-retired Serena Williams, warned that the emotions of his controversial deportation could catch up with Djokovic.
“It’s going to be tough for Novak in Australia, that’s for sure,” he said.
“He (is) going to carry a big emotional baggage. He’s been through so much, emotionally speaking. Nobody is immune.”
Speaking for the first time since setting foot back in Australia, Djokovic earlier this month admitted that the events of last year “stays with you for, I guess, the rest of your life.”
But after beating Korda for the Adelaide crown, he said he held no grudges.
“I couldn’t ask for a better preparation and lead-up to the Australian Open,” he said.
“I love playing in Australia. My results are a testament to that.”