As the Australian Open approaches, there seems to be only one story

MELBOURNE, Australia — One by one, some of the world’s greatest tennis players took off their masks on Saturday for a day of press conferences, but they didn’t necessarily let their guard down.

It’s a delicate situation, l’affaire Novak Djokovic. A fluid situation too, with a federal court hearing scheduled for Sunday to try and determine whether the world’s No. 1 ranked men’s tennis player will get his visa and defend his Australian Open title, despite not being vaccinated against the coronavirus .

On Saturday, with the cameras rolling and Djokovic returning to detention at the Park Hotel, Media Day continued without the reigning champions at Melbourne Park. (Normally he would have been included in the event – where players stood alone on the podium and members of the news media were socially distant – but Djokovic was not interviewed on Saturday given the situation.)

But he was still there – his case came up in almost 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 cautious this time, saying the decision was ultimately up to the government and not tennis players, but suggested she understood how the control felt.

“I know what it’s like to be in his situation in a place where you’re asked about that person, just to see comments from other players,” she said. “It’s not the prettiest. I just try to keep it positive.”

But Rafael Nadal, one of Djokovic’s old rivals, was willing to play closer to the lines.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Nadal said. “It is very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players in history, without a doubt. But there is no player in history more important than the event, right? The player stays and then goes, and other players come.

“Even Roger, Novak, myself, Bjorn Borg, who was great in his day, tennis continues,” he said, referring to Roger Federer. “Australian Open is more important than any player. When he finally plays, okay. If he doesn’t play, the Australian Open will be a great Australian Open.”

Some players had certainly prepared for the Djokovic issue, talking to their agents and entourages about the matter to try and get their messages right. But Nadal’s body language seemed as spontaneous as his freewheeling English on Saturday, gesticulating as he searched for the right words in his second language.

I asked him what lessons can be learned from the Djokovic mess (I didn’t call it a mess).

While Nadal said it had no effect on his personal preparation, he said things had gone too far, dominating the headlines and clouding results for the start of the season. Other players shared that sentiment, including Australia’s Alex de Minaur, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza and Emma Raducanu, the thoughtful British teenager who was the shock champion of the United States Open last year.

“I feel like the situation has kind of taken away from the great tennis played this summer,” Raducanu said, referring to the Australian summer.

She pointed to the feel-good story of Andy Murray, who made it to the final in Sydney at the age of 34: his first tour final since 2019, and all the more remarkable because he now has an artificial hip. Raducanu could also have named Nadal, who returned after chronic foot problems and his last extended break to win the singles title last Sunday at a preliminary ATP 250 event in Melbourne.

“Honestly, I’m a bit tired of the situation because I just believe it’s important to talk about our sport, about tennis,” Nadal said of Djokovic’s case.

In reality there has been no shortage of distractions for the tournament in Melbourne over the years.

Reports of widespread match-fixing dominated the run-up to the 2016 tournament. Wildfires eclipsed much of tennis in 2020, as did the 2021 pandemic quarantine restrictions, which saw some players slamming balls against walls and mattresses in their hotel rooms to try and get some sort of. maintain rhythm (and common sense).

But what sets 2022 apart from its predecessors is that it focuses on the fate of a single player, not just any player. Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion, in his 355th week record as No. 1 and increasingly the consensus pick as the best men’s player of this golden era, despite still leveling with Nadal and Federer on 20 Grand Slam titles.

The French Open belonged to Nadal – he has won a whopping 13 titles on the red clay in Paris – but the Australian Open has been Djokovic’s domain, and it will be interesting to see the effect of the Melbourne pandemic stalemate in many years to come. has has on its legacy, down under and beyond.

Nick Kyrgios, a young star who was not at the press conference because he is in isolation in Sydney after testing positive for the coronavirus, offered support to Djokovic on Saturday’s podcast ‘No Boundaries’.

“We are currently treating him as if he were a weapon of mass destruction; he’s literally here to play tennis,” Kyrgios said, suggesting Australians were using Djokovic as a punching bag to vent their frustrations over all their pandemic hardships.

“As a human being, he clearly feels 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 close to Djokovic, argued 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,” said Zverev. “Still one of the best players of all time for me. I mean, of course this isn’t fun for everyone, and certainly not for him. But don’t doubt his legacy because of this.”

Of course, legacies are not just about results. They’re also about the intangibles: the memories and joy fans cherish after following a champion for years.

Djokovic is a complex, often contradictory figure who can have both self-interest and magnanimity, for example devoting considerable time and energy to promoting the cause of lower-ranked players and aiding athletes from Serbia and the wider Balkan region.

His reach has sometimes backfired. The charity tennis tour he organized in the early stages of the 2020 pandemic had to be canceled after he and some other players tested positive for the coronavirus, and he misinterpreted the global mood by partying unmasked and without social distancing.

Now, after saying he tested positive again last month and got a vaccination waiver from Tennis Australia, he has arrived in a city and country where lockdowns and health restrictions were some of the strictest in the world, and where the case of the coronavirus and the number of hospital admissions has risen rapidly. The Australian government, which is seeking to deport him after revoking his visa a second time, argues his continued presence could jeopardize the vaccination campaign.

Vaccines are not a panacea – Nadal, like Raducanu, recently contracted the coronavirus after playing in Abu Dhabi, despite being vaccinated. But vaccines have proven to be protective against serious diseases. Nadal remains a supporter of them, while Djokovic is an outlier, one of only three players in the top 100 not to have been vaccinated, according to the men’s tour.

One of the others, American Tennys Sandgren, two-time Australian Open quarter-finalist, chose not to make the trip to Melbourne this year and did not seek an exemption. He has called the Australian case against Djokovic “a witch hunt” and while it’s hard to go that far, it seems pretty clear that the Australian authorities have been sending mixed signals and communicating poorly.

After all, the Victoria State government had granted Djokovic a medical exemption from the vaccination requirement, which the federal government had withdrawn after further investigation when Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on January 5.

“I mean, didn’t he have a visa?” said Zverev. “The Australian government and the Victorian government should have been clear in advance about what is going to happen.”

It’s a good point – just as it is an excellent point that after Djokovic said he was informed last month about a positive test for the coronavirus, he should never have agreed to a personal interview with French journalist Franck Ramella in Belgrade, Serbia. , rather than isolating.

Mistakes have been made in this affair in many quarters, and the result is a controversy too big to ignore – one that has so far left little room for pure tennis stories, such as Australian veteran Samantha Stosur winning her last Australian Open in playing the singles game.

“Look, I think it’s all been a little messy; that’s probably an understatement,” Stosur said wistfully of l’affaire Djokovic. “Hopefully a decision can finally be made over the weekend, whether you agree or not. He stays or he goes. Either way, it just has to be decided and hopefully it won’t tarnish the rest of the Australian Open.”