MELBOURNE: Just stay tuned. As hard-to-believe a story as there’s been in the run-up to any Grand Slam tournament keeps adding twists and turns and shows no sign of allowing any actual tennis stealing the attention: Defending champion Novak Djokovic is hoping to play at the Australian Open despite not having been vaccinated for COVID-19.
The latest holdup has to do with an anticipated decision from the country’s immigration minister on Djokovic’s back-and-forth status. Even then it could go back to a court – of the legal variety, naturally.
“Medical exemption” and “inoculation” and “visa” have dominated the conversation related to Melbourne Park as the start of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament approaches on Monday (Sunday in the US).
As of Thursday night, there still was no resolution, although Djokovic’s name was at the top of the men’s bracket, with his No. 1 seeding intact, due to face another Serbian, Miomir Kecmanovic, in the first round.
That’s if Djokovic is allowed to play, of course. Usually, his placement in the same half of the draw as Rafael Nadal – both players are vying for a 21st major title, to break a record they share with Roger Federer – would grab headlines.
A potential semifinal between two of the greats of the game might even have grabbed as much notice as a possible fourth-round contest between top-ranked Ash Barty and defending champion Naomi Osaka in the women’s draw.
But tennis matches have been of secondary interest since Djokovic flew into Melbourne just before midnight on January 5.
Following four nights confined to an immigration detention hotel after his exemption to Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination rules was rejected and his visa was canceled, Djokovic won a court fight on procedural grounds Monday that allowed him to stay and play.
Ever since, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has been considering whether to revoke the visa again. A decision looms.
Djokovic’s court documents said he tested positive for the coronavirus last month, grounds that he and Australian Open organizers thought would qualify for an exemption to the everyone-must-be-vaccinated rules.
The federal government disagreed. While he awaits the final call, Djokovic has been practicing at Rod Laver Arena to shake off the feeling of confinement. Nadal warmed up with a title in a tuneup tournament last week in Melbourne, where he noted that Djokovic could have avoided all the drama with two shots of an approved vaccine.
At a sponsor’s event Thursday at Melbourne Park, Nadal contained his comments to his own return from an extended layoff and the difficulties he’s encountered during the pandemic. “Challenging times like the last six months is tough mentally, and especially later in your career. But I still have the passion and the love for what I’m doing,” he said.
Asked again about Djokovic’s situation, Nadal smiled and responded: “Sorry, I have to go and practice.” That’s become a bit of a theme. Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley refused to answer questions about Djokovic at that sponsorship event and the draw.
Andy Murray, whose relationship with Djokovic dates to their days as juniors, had just won his first match in Australia in more than 1,000 days when he was asked this week about the visa saga. “This is where the situations like this are frustrating for players, because I want to come off and talk about my tennis, not talking about situations like that. I’m hoping that we can move on from it now. Wishful thinking,” Murray said.
Djokovic’s anti-vaccine stance makes him a polarizing figure in a country where coronavirus cases are surging despite more than 90% of the eligible population being vaccinated for COVID-19, and in a city where residents spent more than 260 days in lockdowns during the pandemic.
Djokovic missed a chance for a 21st major when he lost the US Open final to Daniil Medvedev last year.
Medvedev, who also ended Djokovic’s run at a calendar-year Grand Slam, is the No. 2 seed in Australia. The 2021 Australian Open runner-up has local favorite Nick Kyrgios, No. 5 Andrey Rublev, No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, and John Isner in his quarter of the draw and could meet No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals.
Either Barty or Osaka can’t make it that far, after ending up in a tough section that gives their fourth-round match the feel of a final. The winner could meet No. 5 Maria Sakkari or No. 9 Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.
French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova is also in the same half of the draw, along with 2020 champion Sofia Kenin and Coco Gauff.
Second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, No. 3 Garbiñe Muguruza, two-time major winner Simona Halep and US Open champion Emma Raducanu, who opens against 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens, are on the opposite half of the draw.
Barty, desperate to end an Australian Open title drought for Aussie women that stretches back to 1978, had a win at the Adelaide International last weekend before skipping a Sydney tournament and heading directly to Melbourne.
Former No.1-ranked Osaka is coming in relatively fresh, after taking a pair of mental health breaks in 2021.
After winning last year’s Australian Open for her fourth Grand Slam title, she withdrew before the second round of the French Open and skipped Wimbledon. After taking another hiatus after the US Open, she slid in the rankings and is seeded 13th. “Honestly, I still won a Slam last year, so I don’t consider it that bad. I feel like whenever I come here, or come back here at the start of the year, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” Osaka said.
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