The Australian Open is mired in controversy and confusion just days before it begins, with Novak Djokovic’s title defence in grave doubt and questions about his fitness even if he is allowed to play.
The world number one’s decision not to get vaccinated against Covid-19 blew up when he was detained trying to enter Australia on a medical exemption last week.
The vaccine-sceptic Serbian won a court battle to remain and has been training at Melbourne Park, but he still might not play in the tournament with Australia’s immigration minister mulling whether to quash his visa.
Djokovic, who is chasing a record 21st Grand Slam title, was named the top men’s seed on Tuesday, even as his status remains unclear. The draw is due to be made on Thursday.
His former coach, Boris Becker, said that the 34-year-old was “shell-shocked” by having to spend five days in immigration detention — far from ideal build-up for the first Grand Slam of the year.
“Obviously his preparation is beyond bad. I don’t think he’s ever been in a worse position entering the week before a Grand Slam, but that’s just the way it is,” Becker told the BBC after speaking to the Serbian star on Monday.
If he does play, Djokovic is sure to face hostility from crowds upset that he is able to compete unvaccinated in a city that went through one of the longest series of lockdowns anywhere in the world.
“The crowd will be difficult with him but with each match he starts, he will win the crowd and they will embrace him again,” Becker said.
Speaking this week, as his fate hung in the balance, Djokovic said: “I just want to have the opportunity to compete against the best players in the world and perform before one of the best crowds in the world.”
Known as the ‘Happy Slam’ because of its bumper crowds, good weather and party atmosphere, it is the second year in a row that the Open has started under a cloud, after it was hit in 2021 by coronavirus.
Back then, top stars including Djokovic were forced to spend two weeks in their hotel rooms as part of Australia’s mandatory quarantine requirements, with many angry about it.
A resilient Djokovic emerged to win a record-extending ninth Australian Open title, while Naomi Osaka clinched the women’s crown.
– ‘Unanswered questions’ –
Australia’s treatment of Djokovic has divided observers and angered the Serbian government, but most can agree that tennis is the loser.
The ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, called the affair “damaging on all fronts” and Britain’s former world number one Andy Murray said Tuesday that a resolution was needed as soon as possible.
“It’s the first match that I have played here or won here in over three years, and yes, this is where the situations like this are frustrating for players because I want to come off and talk about my tennis,” he said after victory in a Sydney warm-up tournament.
But the 34-year-old Murray, a three-time Grand Slam champion, added that Djokovic also has “a few questions” to answer.
Covid and the highly infectious Omicron variant also stalk the Australian Open.
Australian crowd-pleaser Nick Kyrgios — who said that “how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad” — has tested positive for the virus, throwing his participation into major doubt.
Several high-profile players, including Spanish great Rafael Nadal, US Open champion Emma Raducanu and Tokyo Olympic champion Belinda Bencic are only just now returning to action from the virus.
Serena Williams and Roger Federer — two of tennis’s greatest players in the twilight of their careers — are missing from Melbourne as they recover from injury-hit 2021 seasons.
It is easy to forget there is actually some tennis happening.
Nadal, who showed few ill effects in winning the build-up Melbourne Summer Set on Sunday, is also chasing a 21st Slam title.
In the women’s draw, world number one Ashleigh Barty is the overwhelming favourite to break through and win a Grand Slam on home soil for the first time.