Novak Djokovic got back to winning ways on court at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Monday, and then expressed his relief at being accepted back into the fold by both the players and fans.
The world No. 1 has been at the centre of a Covid-19 vaccination saga for months, which culminated with his detention and eventual deportation from Australia last month ahead of the first Grand Slam of the season — the Australian Open.
- Look: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships - ATP action Day 1 as Murray and Djokovic contend
- Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships: Plain sailing for Novak Djokovic against Musetti
- Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships: Krajinovic feels right at home in UAE
- Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships: Andy Murray weathers the storm
Djokovic last played when he beat Marin Cilic on December 3 but could not stop Croatia eliminating Serbia in the Davis Cup semi-final in Madrid to end his 2021 season.
His campaign this year was knocked off course when he was deported from Australia following a drawn out dispute over his medical exemption from the country’s Covid vaccination rules. Djokovic lost the argument and his chance to win a record 21st Grand Slam title. Instead, Rafael Nadal took the title and sole ownership of the record.
When asked if he had sought out any players to say hello in Dubai after the furore, Djokovic said: “I had a few conversations. Actually most of the players that I met here in the last couple days were very friendly to me. It (Australia) came up. Some of the players asked me, you know, how it felt, how I feel right now.
“The majority of them actually welcomed me and said it’s nice to see me back on the tour. Obviously that makes me feel great. I’m very thankful for that because having the kind of an understanding at least I would say, if not support from my peers and my colleagues, is very important to me because they are the people that I get to see sometimes more than my family. So, of course, I care greatly about the relationships that we have.
“I appreciate the fact that most of the people here came up to me and welcomed me back on the tour, which for me is already very positive.”
Djokovic spoke to the BBC last week in attempt to clear the air and get across his side of the story — and make it clear he stood by his decision to take a stand about having the right to choose what he puts into his body and not be forced to take the vaccine.
“In terms of image, I really don’t know. Of course, there was not many positive articles about this whole situation in the last month or so. But ever since my interview with BBC, I think things are maybe shifting a little bit,” he said. “I’m hoping. But I understand there’s still a lot of speculations and people questioning.
“I said what I needed to say. I’ve been always very open and transparent, try to speak with the media that maybe criticises me more or not, whatever. I’m there. I’m open to answer any question. Hopefully things will shift in a positive way for me.”
Djokovic was also thrilled to get such a great reception from the packed crown on Centre Court as he defeated Italian qualifier Lorenzo Musetti 6-3, 6-3 as the clock approached midnight in Dubai.
“It was a great reception, I must say,” he told Gulf News. “I was feeling great obviously to get that kind of reception and welcoming from the crowd. I thank them very much from my heart.
“Obviously with everything that was happening, I didn’t know how it’s going to unfold for me on the court, how am I going to feel. Obviously I was trying to use my experience, approach this match as any other really.
“I’m very pleased with the way I managed to hold my nerves I think in the crucial moments when I was facing break points, found the right serve. I know I can always do better in terms of the quality of tennis. There’s some moments where I felt like I played really well, some moments where I was just losing the rhythm on my serve. I had a low percentage of first serves in. Of course, for the next match there’s always more to work on and improve and look forward to."
Djokovic insisted he took the preparations all in his stride after such a long time off court.
“I would say I was equally excited and nervous like before any other match after a long break,” he said. “I had almost two-and-a-half, three months without a match officially on the tour.
“Certainly circumstances are different, everything that has happened in the last month and a half. So I was really looking forward to step out on the court.
“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. There is a big Serbian community as well. It was very nice to see Serbian flags around. I felt there was an international crowd supporting me as well, which was very nice. They exceeded my best expectations, so to say, in terms of the atmosphere.”
Djokovic admitted it was tough to watch the Australian Open from home rather than competing — seeing Nadal claim his 21st Grand Slam in the process to inch ahead of the Serb.
“Of course I was disappointed with the end result of my short stay in Australia, that I had to leave the country without competing in a Grand Slam. That’s the very reason why I was there,” he said.
“I wasn’t enjoying watching the tournament knowing that I’m not able to be there. So the finals, I was trying not to watch it, but then I had my household was watching, basically everyone was watching, my wife and my kids, so I had to follow it.
“But congratulations to Rafa. I mean, incredible performance. He is an 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.”
Andy Murray, who also made it through to the second round, was glad to see his friend playing again — even if he does not agree with his vaccine stance.
“Actually I’ve not seen him here yet,” Murray said after his win over Australian qualifier Christopher O’Connell. “We shared a few messages while he was in Australia. Like I said at the time, I don’t agree with his decision. I think it would be a lot easier for him obviously if he was to get vaccinated.
“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. I didn’t like seeing that. I think it would be better for tennis if he was playing all of the major events.
“There is 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.”