Sports

Fans’ welcome ‘exceeded expectations’ for Novak Djokovic after return


Novak Djokovic admitted the warm reception he was given by fans in Dubai on Monday exceeded his expectations as he made a successful return to the tour for the first time since his deportation from Australia.

The world No.1 kicked off his 2022 campaign with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti, and was greeted by loud cheers from a packed stadium as he commenced his quest for a sixth title in the Emirates in style.

Djokovic was not sure how he would be received in the wake of everything that happened in Australia last month, but stated he “couldn’t ask for a better reception” as fans scrambled to take photos with him after the match, chanting “Nole, Nole” to celebrate his victory and his return to action.

“I think Dubai is a perfect place for me to start a season because of the support and the fans that showed up tonight and really cheered me on the way they did,” Djokovic told reporters in an outdoor news conference that was specifically set up for him, away from the main interview room.

“They exceeded my best expectations, so to say, in terms of the atmosphere.”

The 34-year-old’s hopes of winning a 10th Australian Open — and 21st Grand Slam — last month were shattered when he had his visa canceled and was deported for not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

In his absence, Rafael Nadal clinched a record-breaking 21st major title, moving ahead of Djokovic and Roger Federer — who each have 20 — in the race for Grand Slam supremacy.

“The (Australian Open) final, I was trying not to watch it, but then I had my household watching, basically everyone was watching, my wife and my kids, so I had to follow it,” reflected Djokovic.

“But congratulations to Rafa. Incredible performance. Amazing fighter he is.

“I got tons of respect for him. I don’t want to take anything away from his victory, me not participating in the tournament regardless. Of course, it wasn’t a pleasant feeling for me leaving the country the way I did and watching the tournament from far away.”

Djokovic acknowledges that his reputation has taken a hit in recent weeks and has consulted with several PR professionals to get a better understanding of the “different dynamics” related to his situation, which he concedes has escalated beyond sport and has entered several realms, including politics.

“In terms of image, I really don’t know. Of course, there were not many positive articles about this whole situation in the last month or so. I think things are maybe shifting a little bit. I’m hoping. But I understand there’s still a lot of speculations and people questioning,” he said.

Djokovic can play in Dubai as a COVID-19 vaccine is not a requirement to enter the United Arab Emirates but he revealed that “as of today,” he is unable to enter the United States to compete at the forthcoming Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.

His meeting with the 19-year-old Musetti was his first competitive match since the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid last December.

It was a rematch of their Roland Garros fourth-round encounter from last spring, where Musetti led Djokovic by two sets before retiring in the decider.

On Monday, top seed Djokovic needed just 74 minutes to make the last 16 where he will face either Karen Khachanov or Alex de Minaur.

Earlier, former world No. 1 Andy Murray battled for nearly three hours against Australian qualifier Christopher O’Connell before advancing to the second round with a 6-7(4-7), 6-3, 7-5 victory.

Murray is now just one win shy of his goal of reaching 700 career match wins and could check that item off his bucket list if he comes out victorious in his next clash in Dubai against either Italian No. 4 seed Jannik Sinner or Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

The three-time Grand Slam winner, competing in Dubai for the first time since he won the title in 2017, says he does not agree with Djokovic’s stance against the vaccine but believes the tour is better off when the world No. 1 is able to compete.

“I think it would be a lot easier for him obviously if he was to get vaccinated,” Murray said.

“But I also didn’t like seeing him in the situation that he was in Australia as someone that I respect, have known since I was a child.

“There are consequences to the decisions he’s made just now. He obviously has to accept that. But I don’t think it’s great for tennis if our best player is not competing in the major events.”

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