There are images that we do not forget. That of Novak Djokovic masked and escorted to his place in flight EK 409 for Dubai, has been around the world. It is January 16, 2022, the Serbian leaves Melbourne eleven days after arriving on Australian soil as the Australian Open begins the next day.
“What happened is worthy of a movie”, summarizes the former French player Nathalie Dechy. Let’s rewind. It all starts with a photo posted by the Serb, all smiles next to his luggage before his departure for Australia. Not vaccinated against Covid-19, he announced that he had obtained a derogation allowing him to circumvent the vaccination obligation then in force. This banal post on Instagram, however, sets fire to the powder: did the player, then world number one, benefit from a free pass? Expected by the border police on his arrival, he justifies his exemption by a recent positive control, but the authorities consider that the evidence is insufficient and withdraw his visa. A decision that the federal court ends up confirming, expelling him from the country.
A year after this imbroglio, Novak Djokovic is back in Melbourne (he faces, on Tuesday January 17, the Spaniard Roberto Carballes, 75e world player) and, this time, it is for sporting reasons that all eyes will be on him. “He will be keen to bounce back from last year’s affront, think Nathalie Dechy. He arrived early in Australia and played a preparation tournament, it shows that he is hypermotivated. » The incredible scenes in front of the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where he had been placed in detention, gave way to the ovation of the public on the blue courts of Adelaide, where he won the 92e tournament of his career, Sunday January 8, equaling his rival Rafael Nadal.
History could repeat itself
The beginning, for him, of a return to normal? One victory away from achieving the calendar Grand Slam in 2021 – after winning the first three major tournaments of the year, he lost in the final of the US Open – the “Djoker” saw his plans thwarted by his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19. “It was a roller coaster”he admitted of his 2022 season.
Deprived of all tournaments on the American continent (four Masters 1000 – the most prestigious tournament category after the Grand Slams – and the US Open), deprived of points for his title at Wimbledon – the Russian and Belarusian players being, them , excluded because of the war in Ukraine –, the Serb, however “driven by the race for records”, as Arnaud Di Pasquale reminds us, lost big. “Are you willing to give up a chance to become the greatest player to ever hold a racquet? »had questioned an English journalist during an interview with the BBC, in February 2022. “Yes, that’s the price I’m willing to pay”he replied, insisting not to be “against vaccination” but have “always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body”.
With only eleven tournaments played last year, Novak Djokovic has almost become a part-time player. “What he has done, with what he has experienced, is exceptional. He answered present each time when the pressure was perhaps more important. He wants to show he’s the best.”, comments Arnaud Di Pasquale. With seven finals for five titles, including a Grand Slam, the Masters at the end of the year and the Masters 1000 in Rome, the Serb has shown formidable efficiency.
But in 2023 history could repeat itself. Because of his convictions, the 35-year-old player should miss the American tour again this year, for lack of being vaccinated. “He probably went through the hardestbelieves Tatiana Golovin, ex-French player turned consultant for BeIN Sports. There, he expects it and it should be easier to manage with the experience of last year. Everything is always more complicated for him, but he writes a different story from other players. »