Novak’s coming back, and hoping for Melbourne’s Open heart

Novak Djokovic will come to Australia at the end of this month with a bag full of hopes, the biggest one being that he can make history with a 10th Australian Open title. But another longing will burn almost as fiercely in the Djokovic baggage: the hope that Australian fans are ready to forgive and forget the wild mess he brought upon himself and the tournament last summer.

“Djokovic baggage”: what a loaded phrase that is, and the man has shown an endless capacity for adding to its weight, and never more so than in Melbourne last January.

Novak Djokovic is set to return to the Australian Open in January.Credit:AP

Assessing that mess a year on is difficult – it’s hard to capture the pandemic-fuelled mood and the silly season frenzy that turned Djokovic’s battle for a visa while unvaccinated into a soap opera that had people around the world huddling around livestreams of arcane court hearings, and a media pack camped outside the immigration detention hotel in Carlton.

What we can say with certainty is that no one emerged looking good. Not Djokovic, behaving like an entitled brat; not the Australian government, enforcing an absurd law that delivers too much power to the minister to deport people on his whim; and certainly not Tennis Australia, who made a complete hash of a crisis demanding some deft and nimble public relations.

So it was a relief, and a win for common sense, when the Albanese government overturned Djokovic’s automatic visa ban a few weeks ago. Also a relief: Djokovic greeted the news with modesty and gratitude rather than the tone-deaf hubris he is often known for. “It was a relief … knowing what I and people closest to me in my life have been through this year with what happened in Australia and post-Australia obviously,” he said.

Novak Djokovic in detention Melbourne in January, before he was evicted from the country.Credit:Getty Images.

The question now is how the Australian public reacts to his return to his happiest grand slam hunting ground.

At the peak of the drama, a poll found 71 per cent of people favoured sending him packing. I was among them, predicting in these pages what might happen were he allowed to play: “Expect boos – long, loud and sustained in their disgust – from those who just have to let fly with their frustration and fury.”

A year on I, and I suspect most people, are ready to put it behind us.

Tennis fans have a long history of embracing former villains.

Sometimes, villainy has been visited upon the overly dominant. Martina Navratilova once said of the lack of crowd affection when she was beating all-comers: “I wanted crowds to like me more.” John McEnroe was the villain from central casting, and shares with Djokovic the ignominy of enduring the lowest moment of his career in Australia, where he was thrown out of the 1990 Open.

Novak shares Navratilova’s longing for the affection of the crowds – it’s a yearning he has worn on his sleeve, often to contrary results – but his is a more complicated story. There’s the self-pity, and also the clinical manner of his triumphs. And then there is his greatest misfortune: that he has shared the stage with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, whose love affair with fans and with each other was on full display when Federer retired in London in September.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal after playing for the final time together in September.Credit:AP

With tennis stadiums overflowing with fans entranced by Roger and Rafa, the narrative cried out for a villain. That role fell to Djokovic, and helps explain why the vaccination fiasco earned him more brutal brickbats than might have been wielded against either of his great rivals.

Rehabilitation has come over the course of the year. It helped that in his first grand slam event back in Paris, he lost to a resurgent Nadal. He won Wimbledon, but got no ranking points due to a dispute between Wimbledon and the players over the tournament’s ban on Russian competitors.

Even Djokovic’s most curdled critics had to admit that seemed unfair, and the practical result is that he comes to Australia ranked No. 5 in the world. That’s foreign territory for him.

In all, he will surely return humbled by events and hoping for a fresh start. Federer won’t be here, and Nadal has recently been troubled with injuries. A new guard of young players is taking charge at last, led by the new world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz.

It could well be that Djokovic will play the role in Melbourne of elder statesman – chastened by experience and meeting the Australian crowds somewhere in the middle: a graceful return met with generous spirit. It won’t be a love-in – like tennis villains before him, Djokovic may have to wait for retirement for that – but I reckon he will be greeted warmly.

After the last two years, it’s a relief to approach the Open focusing on the only thing that counts: the tennis. May the best player win.

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