MELBOURNE, Australia — One by one, some of the world’s greatest tennis players took off their masks on Saturday for a day of news conferences, but they did not necessarily let their guards down.
It is a delicate situation, l’affaire Novak Djokovic. A fluid situation, too, with a federal court hearing scheduled for Sunday to try to determine whether the world’s No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player will have his visa restored and be allowed to defend his Australian Open title, despite not having been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
On Saturday, as the cameras rolled and Djokovic returned to detention at the Park Hotel, Media Day went on without the reigning champion at Melbourne Park. (Normally, he would have been included in the event — where players were alone on the dais and members of the news media were socially distanced — but Djokovic was not interviewed on Saturday given the situation.)
But he was still present — his case a feature of nearly every interview, as his fellow athletes played the question-and-answer game before the start of the Australian Open on Monday (with or without Djokovic).
Naomi Osaka, the Japanese star who has often been one of the sport’s most outspoken players on social issues, was more circumspect this time, saying the decision was ultimately up to the government and not to tennis players, but suggesting that she understood how the scrutiny felt.
“I know what it’s like to kind of be in his situation in a place that you’re getting asked about that person, to just see comments from other players,” she said. “It’s not the greatest thing. Just trying to keep it positive.”
But Rafael Nadal, one of Djokovic’s longtime rivals, was willing to play closer to the lines.
“I tell you one thing,” Nadal said. “It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that’s more important than the event, no? The player stays and then goes, and other players are coming.
“Even Roger, Novak, myself, Bjorn Borg, who was amazing at his times, tennis keeps going,” he said, referring to Roger Federer. “Australian Open is more important than any player. If he’s playing finally, OK. If he’s not playing, the Australian Open will be a great Australian Open.”
Some players had surely prepared for the Djokovic question, talking over the issue with their agents and entourages to try to get their messaging right. But Nadal’s body language seemed as spontaneous as his freewheeling English on Saturday, full of gesticulations as he searched for the right words in his second language.
I asked him what lessons might be drawn from the Djokovic mess (I didn’t call it a mess).
Though Nadal said it had no effect on his personal preparation, he said things had gone too far, dominating the headlines and obscuring the early-season results. Other players shared that sentiment, including Alex de Minaur of Australia, Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain and Emma Raducanu, the thoughtful British teenager who was last year’s shock United States Open champion.
“I feel that the situation has taken away a little bit from the great tennis being played over the summer,” Raducanu said, referring to the Australian summer.
She pointed to the feel-good story of Andy Murray, who made it into the final in Sydney at age 34: his first tour final since 2019, and all the more remarkable because he now has an artificial hip. Raducanu also could have mentioned Nadal, who returned after chronic foot problems and his latest extended break to win the singles title last Sunday at a preliminary ATP 250 event in Melbourne.
“Honestly I’m a little bit tired of the situation because I just believe that it’s important to talk about our sport, about tennis,” Nadal said of Djokovic’s case.
In truth, there has been no shortage of pretournament distractions through the years in Melbourne.
Reports of widespread match-fixing dominated the run-up to the 2016 tournament. Bush fires obscured much of the tennis in 2020, as did the pandemic quarantine restrictions in 2021, which reduced some players to hitting balls against walls and mattresses in their hotel rooms to try to maintain some sort of rhythm (and sanity).
But what separates 2022 from its predecessors is that the focus is on the fate of a single player, and not just any player. Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion, in his record 355th week as No. 1 and increasingly the consensus pick as the greatest men’s player of this golden era, despite still being tied with Nadal and Federer at 20 Grand Slam singles titles.
The French Open has belonged to Nadal — he has won an astounding 13 titles on the red clay in Paris — but the Australian Open has been Djokovic’s domain, and it will be interesting many years from now to see what effect the pandemic standoff in Melbourne has on his legacy, down under and beyond.
Nick Kyrgios, a young star who was not at the news conference because he is isolating in Sydney after testing positive for the coronavirus, offered support for Djokovic 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 were using Djokovic as a punching bag to vent their frustrations over all of their pandemic privations.
“As a human, he’s obviously feeling quite alienated,” said Kyrgios, who said Djokovic had reached out to him via social media to thank him for the support. “It’s a dangerous place to be when you feel like the world is against you, and you can’t do anything right.”
Alexander Zverev, another young star who is close to Djokovic, argued on Saturday against reading too much into the current drama.
“He still won 20 Grand Slams. He still has the most weeks at No. 1. He still has the most Masters Series,” Zverev said. “Still for me one of the greatest players of all time. I mean, this is obviously not a nice thing for everyone, for him especially. But don’t question his legacy because of this.”
Legacies are, of course, not just about results. They are also about the intangibles: the memories and the delight that fans hold close after years of following a champion.
Djokovic is a complex, often contradictory figure who can be both self-interested and magnanimous, devoting, for example, considerable time and energy to promoting the cause of lower-ranked players and to helping support athletes from Serbia and the wider Balkan region.
The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia
His outreach has sometimes backfired. The charity tennis tour he organized in the early stages of the pandemic in 2020 had to be canceled after he and some other players tested positive for the coronavirus, and he misread the global mood by partying unmasked and without social distancing.
Now, after he said he tested positive again last month and received a vaccination exemption from Tennis Australia, he has arrived in a city and country where the lockdowns and health restrictions have been some of the most severe in the world, and where the coronavirus case and hospitalization rates have been rising rapidly. The Australian government, as it tries to deport him after canceling his visa a second time, is arguing that his continued presence risks compromising its vaccination campaign.
Vaccines are no panacea — Nadal, like Raducanu, recently contracted the coronavirus after playing in Abu Dhabi despite being inoculated. But vaccines have proven protective against severe illness. Nadal remains an advocate of them, while Djokovic is an outlier, 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-time Australian Open quarterfinalist, chose not to make the journey to Melbourne this year and did not seek an exemption. He has called the Australian case against Djokovic “a witch hunt,” and though it is hard to go that far, it seems quite clear that the Australian authorities have sent mixed signals and communicated poorly.
The Victoria State government, after all, had issued Djokovic a medical exemption from the vaccination requirement, which the federal government canceled upon further investigation when Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on Jan. 5.
“I mean, he had a visa, right?” Zverev said. “The Australian government and the Victorian government should have been clear what is going to happen beforehand.”
It is a good point — just as it is an excellent point that Djokovic, after he said he was informed about testing positive for the coronavirus last month, should never have agreed to an in-person interview with the French journalist Franck Ramella in Belgrade, Serbia, instead of isolating.
Mistakes have been made in many quarters in this affair, and the result is a controversy too big to ignore — one that has left little room, so far, for pure tennis stories, like the Australian veteran Samantha Stosur playing her final Australian Open in singles.
“Look, I think it’s all been a little bit messy; that’s probably an understatement,” Stosur said wistfully of l’affaire Djokovic. “Hopefully over the weekend, a decision can be made finally, whether you agree or don’t agree. He stays or he goes. Whatever the case, it’s just got to be decided, and hopefully it’s not going to tarnish the rest of the Australian Open.”