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As the Australian Open Nears, There Seems to Be Only One Story

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MELBOURNE, Australia — One by one, a few of the world’s biggest tennis gamers took off their masks on Saturday for a day of stories conferences, however they didn’t essentially let their guards down.

It is a fragile scenario, l’affaire Novak Djokovic. A fluid scenario, too, with a federal court docket listening to scheduled for Sunday to attempt to decide whether or not the world’s No. 1-ranked males’s tennis participant may have his visa restored and be allowed to defend his Australian Open title, regardless of not having been vaccinated towards the coronavirus.

On Saturday, as the cameras rolled and Djokovic returned to detention at the Park Hotel, Media Day went on with out the reigning champion at Melbourne Park. (Normally, he would have been included in the occasion — the place gamers had been alone on the dais and members of the information media had been socially distanced — however Djokovic was not interviewed on Saturday given the scenario.)

But he was nonetheless current — his case a characteristic of practically each interview, as his fellow athletes performed the question-and-answer recreation earlier than the begin of the Australian Open on Monday (with or with out Djokovic).

Naomi Osaka, the Japanese star who has usually been considered one of the sport’s most outspoken gamers on social points, was extra circumspect this time, saying the determination was finally up to the authorities and never to tennis gamers, however suggesting that she understood how the scrutiny felt.

“I know what it’s like to kind of be in his situation in a place that you’re getting asked about that person, to just see comments from other players,” she stated. “It’s not the greatest thing. Just trying to keep it positive.”

But Rafael Nadal, considered one of Djokovic’s longtime rivals, was prepared to play nearer to the traces.

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

“Even Roger, Novak, myself, Bjorn Borg, who was amazing at his times, tennis keeps going,” he stated, referring to Roger Federer. “Australian Open is more important than any player. If he’s playing finally, OK. If he’s not playing, the Australian Open will be a great Australian Open.”

Some gamers had certainly ready for the Djokovic query, speaking over the concern with their brokers and entourages to attempt to get their messaging proper. But Nadal’s physique language appeared as spontaneous as his freewheeling English on Saturday, filled with gesticulations as he looked for the proper phrases in his second language.

I requested him what classes is likely to be drawn from the Djokovic mess (I didn’t name it a large number).

Though Nadal stated it had no impact on his private preparation, he stated issues had gone too far, dominating the headlines and obscuring the early-season outcomes. Other gamers shared that sentiment, together with Alex de Minaur of Australia, Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain and Emma Raducanu, the considerate British teenager who was final 12 months’s shock United States Open champion.

“I feel that the situation has taken away a little bit from the great tennis being played over the summer,” Raducanu stated, referring to the Australian summer time.

She pointed to the feel-good story of Andy Murray, who made it into the remaining in Sydney at age 34: his first tour remaining since 2019, and all the extra exceptional as a result of he now has a man-made hip. Raducanu additionally might have talked about Nadal, who returned after power foot issues and his newest prolonged break to win the singles title final Sunday at a preliminary ATP 250 occasion in Melbourne.

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

In fact, there was no scarcity of pretournament distractions by means of the years in Melbourne.

Reports of widespread match-fixing dominated the run-up to the 2016 match. Bush fires obscured a lot of the tennis in 2020, as did the pandemic quarantine restrictions in 2021, which diminished some gamers to hitting balls towards partitions and mattresses of their resort rooms to attempt to preserve some type of rhythm (and sanity).

But what separates 2022 from its predecessors is that the focus is on the destiny of a single participant, and never simply any participant. Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion, in his report 355th week as No. 1 and more and more the consensus choose as the biggest males’s participant of this golden period, regardless of nonetheless being tied with Nadal and Federer at 20 Grand Slam singles titles.

The French Open has belonged to Nadal — he has received an astounding 13 titles on the crimson clay in Paris — however the Australian Open has been Djokovic’s area, and it is going to be attention-grabbing a few years from now to see what impact the pandemic standoff in Melbourne has on his legacy, down below and past.

Nick Kyrgios, a younger star who was not at the information convention as a result of he’s isolating in Sydney after testing constructive for the coronavirus, provided help for Djokovic on Saturday in the podcast “No Boundaries.”

“We’re treating him like he’s a weapon of mass destruction at the moment; he’s literally here to play tennis,” Kyrgios stated, suggesting that Australians had been utilizing Djokovic as a punching bag to vent their frustrations over all of their pandemic privations.

“As a human, he’s obviously feeling quite alienated,” stated Kyrgios, who stated Djokovic had reached out to him through social media to thank him for the help. “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, one other younger star who’s shut to Djokovic, argued on Saturday towards studying an excessive amount of into the present drama.

“He still won 20 Grand Slams. He still has the most weeks at No. 1. He still has the most Masters Series,” Zverev stated. “Still for me one of the greatest players of all time. I mean, this is obviously not a nice thing for everyone, for him especially. But don’t question his legacy because of this.”

Legacies are, after all, not nearly outcomes. They are additionally about the intangibles: the recollections and the delight that followers maintain shut after years of following a champion.

Djokovic is a posh, usually contradictory determine who will be each self-interested and magnanimous, devoting, for instance, appreciable time and vitality to selling the reason behind lower-ranked gamers and to serving to help athletes from Serbia and the wider Balkan area.

His outreach has generally backfired. The charity tennis tour he organized in the early phases of the pandemic in 2020 had to be canceled after he and another gamers examined constructive for the coronavirus, and he misinterpret the international temper by partying unmasked and with out social distancing.

Now, after he stated he examined constructive once more final month and acquired a vaccination exemption from Tennis Australia, he has arrived in a metropolis and nation the place the lockdowns and well being restrictions have been a few of the most extreme in the world, and the place the coronavirus case and hospitalization charges have been rising quickly. The Australian authorities, because it tries to deport him after canceling his visa a second time, is arguing that his continued presence dangers compromising its vaccination marketing campaign.

Vaccines aren’t any panacea — Nadal, like Raducanu, just lately contracted the coronavirus after enjoying in Abu Dhabi regardless of being inoculated. But vaccines have confirmed protecting towards extreme sickness. Nadal stays an advocate of them, whereas Djokovic is an outlier, considered one of solely three gamers in the high 100 who haven’t been vaccinated, in accordance to the males’s tour.

One of the others, the American Tennys Sandgren, a two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist, selected not to make the journey to Melbourne this 12 months and didn’t search an exemption. He has referred to as the Australian case towards Djokovic “a witch hunt,” and although it’s laborious to go that far, it appears fairly clear that the Australian authorities have despatched blended alerts and communicated poorly.

The Victoria State authorities, in spite of everything, had issued Djokovic a medical exemption from the vaccination requirement, which the federal authorities canceled upon additional investigation when Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on Jan. 5.

“I mean, he had a visa, right?” Zverev stated. “The Australian government and the Victorian government should have been clear what is going to happen beforehand.”

It is an efficient level — simply because it is a superb level that Djokovic, after he stated he was knowledgeable about testing constructive for the coronavirus final month, ought to by no means have agreed to an in-person interview with the French journalist Franck Ramella in Belgrade, Serbia, as a substitute of isolating.

Mistakes have been made in lots of quarters on this affair, and the end result is an issue too huge to ignore — one which has left little room, thus far, for pure tennis tales, like the Australian veteran Samantha Stosur enjoying her remaining Australian Open in singles.

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