Covid controversy, detention in an immigration facility and courtroom drama form the backdrop to what would be Novak Djokovic’s greatest victory if he lifts a record 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open.
With the Melbourne showpiece starting on Monday, the world number one and defending champion’s participation is in grave doubt.
The Australian government is still pondering whether to cancel the visa of the unvaccinated Serb for a second time and throw him out of the country.
The 34-year-old flew into Melbourne claiming a vaccine exemption because of a positive Covid test in mid-December, but border officials rejected that, his visa was revoked and he was moved to a detention centre.
Djokovic’s legal team overturned that in court, freeing the top seed to begin his disrupted preparations for a tournament in which he has not lost a match since 2018. The Australian government could yet deport him however.
“Despite all that has happened, I want to stay and try to compete,” he tweeted, adding that he “remained focused” on winning his favourite Slam despite his unprecedented build-up on, off and in court.
If Djokovic, who is drawn against fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic in the first round, does play and goes on to win the Australian Open he would become the most successful men’s tennis player in history with 21 majors.
But he would likely have to do it in the face of a hostile reception from spectators, all of whom must be vaccinated to get through the gates of Melbourne Park, in a city which has endured more than 250 days of pandemic lockdown.
Djokovic is one of the best tennis players of all time but he has a history of provoking controversy.
Last year he was accused of feigning injury during his run to the Australian Open title.
At the 2020 US Open he was defaulted from the tournament for hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball.
All that came after his ill-fated launch of his Adria Tour at the height of the pandemic in 2020 when the world of sport was shut down.
He was labelled a “tool” by Australia’s Nick Kyrgios after requesting houses with practice courts for players quarantining before last year’s Australian Open.
Nadal threat, Murray return
But there is no doubt about his talent or popularity in the eyes of his loyal fans, and Melbourne has a sizeable Serbian community.
Djokovic has been year-end world number one on a record seven occasions and spent more weeks at the top of the ATP Tour rankings, 359 and counting, than any other player.
His ninth victory in 17 visits at last year’s Covid-delayed tournament reinforced his dominance in Melbourne, where he claimed his first Grand Slam title in 2008.
With Roger Federer injured and absent, Rafael Nadal and world number two Daniil Medvedev look to be Djokovic’s biggest challengers — and beneficiaries if the Serb does not play.
Russia’s Medvedev, who faces Switzerland’s Henri Laaksonen in the first round, conquered Djokovic in the US Open final in September to win his maiden major and end the world number one’s bid to win a calendar Grand Slam.
Ageing Spanish great Nadal — one of the ‘Big Three’ alongside Djokovic and Federer — is also chasing a record 21st major.
However, it is now 13 years since the injury-prone Nadal, who begins his campaign against American Marcos Giron, won his lone title in Melbourne, despite four further trips to the final.
Other contenders include Germany’s Olympic champion Alexander Zverev and world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, though the Greek is trying to overcome recent elbow surgery.
Britain’s Andy Murray, runner-up in the Australian Open five times, returns on a wildcard for the first time since an emotional 2019 “farewell” appearance after undergoing hip surgery that enabled him to make a remarkable comeback.
Murray will begin his bid against 21st-seeded Nikoloz Basilashvili, whom the Scot beat in three sets at the Sydney ATP warm-up event on Wednesday.