By BRUCE MATTHEWS and STEVE McMORRAN, Associated Press
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — To some, it seemed a cloud had been lifted from the Australian Open. To others, Novak Djokovic still was almost palpably present, the name on everyone’s lips on the opening day of the first major tennis tournament of the year.
Djokovic left Australia late Sunday when he failed in his legal challenge to overturn the cancellation of his visa due to his lack of a COVID-19 vaccination. His flight from Melbourne was touching down in Dubai early Monday just as the first matches of the tournament began.
As the No. 1 ranked male player and the three-time defending champion, Djokovic would have been the marquee attraction of the tournament. In absentia, he still exercised an outsized influence on opening day.
When his Serbian Davis Cup teammate Dusan Lajovic beat Marton Fucsovics of Hungary in a tight five-setter, a Serbian fan immediately tweeted “Dusan Lajovic has avenged his Serbian brother by eliminating Martin Fucsovics.”
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Fucsovics had angered Djokovic’s supporters before the tournament when he was quoted in the media criticizing Djokovic’s unvaccinated status and decision to travel to Australia.
Djokovic received an exemption from to vaccination rules to play in the Australian Open, based on a coronavirus infection in mid-December. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him — sparking an 11-day legal battle and an ongoing political drama.
After his win at Melbourne Park, Lajovic displayed a Serbian flag emblazoned with Djokovic’s image and the words “like it or not, The Greatest of All Time.”
Lajovic said denying Djokovic the opportunity to defend his Australian Open title would only make him more determined to become the best ever tennis player.
“I think the way they treated him was terribly wrong,. I think the decision itself was terribly wrong, and also the reason why they did it is also for me terribly wrong,” Lajovic sid. “I hope that in the future he will be the best tennis player in history, and that this will be only looked at as a setback on his path.”
Coach and analyst Darren Cahill told Australian television “the players are relieved” that Djokovic’s departure focused attention on tennis.
The former coach of world No. 1s Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Simona Halep told the Nine Network “there has been a cloud hanging over the players.”
“I hated the exemption that he had because I think that exemption is really for people who want to get vaccinated and can’t get vaccinated because they have contracted COVID in the last three or six months, and Novak never wanted to get vaccinated.”
Australian federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg rejected the assertion of Serbia President Alexander Vucic that Djokovic was mentally and physically mistreated in Australia.
“I make no apologies for the application of the rules here in Australia around our border protection policies that have helped keep us safe,” Frydenberg said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re the No. 1 tennis player in the world or Betty from Utah, If you’re unvaccinated, the same rules apply.”
Around 50 people gathered for a peaceful rally outside the Melbourne Park complex late Monday in the shadows of Rod Laver Arena, protesting Djokovic’s deportation.
One of the pro-choice activists held a hand-painted banner saying that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison should be ashamed of the decision. Another proudly displayed another banner that read: Deport the Australian (government) for inciting international scorn and ridicule on this nation.
Opinion remained divided worldwide on whether Djokovic should have been allowed to compete in the Australian Open despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19.
At a tennis center in Phoenix, employee Stan Taylor said the lobby was abuzz Sunday with just one question: “What do you think about Novak Djokovic?”
There was no consensus on whether Djokovic had tried to game the system in seeking an exemption to Australia’s strict vaccination rules or had the right to defend his title. In the end, Australia’s immigration minister revoked his visa on public interest grounds.
Taylor said he knows Djokovic has favored unconventional approaches all his life, but he wanted to see the tennis star display leadership in the polarizing COVID-19 vaccine debate.
“I love to watch him do battle,” said Taylor, who has closely followed the saga. “I’ve watched him snatch victory from the mouth of defeat. …. So he loves the game, but this thing was not something to get on the soapbox about. He chose the wrong fight, and he lost.”
Djokovic has overwhelming support from his home country of Serbia, whose president said Australia embarrassed itself. He has also been held up as a hero by some in the anti-vaccine movement.
Others were quick to criticize. One of Italy’s greatest tennis players, Adriano Panatta, called Djokovic’s expulsion from Australia “the most natural epilogue of this affair.”
French tennis player Alize Cornet, meanwhile, expressed sympathy while reserving judgment.
“I know too little to judge the situation,” she posted on Twitter. “What I know is that Novak is always the first one to stand up for the players. But none of us stood for him. Be strong.”
It’s not clear where Djokovic will play next, and he is the defending champion at the next scheduled major, the French Open in May-June.
At this stage, he could still play — if virus rules don’t change before then. French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu confirmed earlier this month that Djokovic would qualify for a “health bubble” that allows unvaccinated players to train and play.
The same could be true for Wimbledon, where he is also the defending champion. England has allowed exemptions from various coronavirus regulations for visiting athletes, if they remain at their accommodation when not competing or training. The U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open, has said it will follow government rules on vaccination status.
Perhaps there is only one thing everyone can agree on. As three-time major winner Andy Murray put it: “The situation has not been good all round for anyone.”
McMorran reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writers Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain; Howard Fendrich in Washington; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia; Rob Harris and Sylvia Hui in London; Jerome Pugmire in Paris; and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this story.
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