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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Matt Majendie

Australian Open: Novak Djokovic out to prove point on Melbourne return but body is his biggest obstacle

As sporting certainties go, this is not quite Rafael Nadal and the French Open, but Novak Djokovic and the Australian Open come a close second.

The Serbian has lost just three matches at the tournament since 2011 and is bidding to extend his titles at Melbourne Park to 10 in a fortnight. Of his last 25 matches anywhere in the world, he has lost just one and was victorious in his only warm-up tournament for the Australian Open, the Adelaide International.

And, perhaps most crucially, he has a point to prove to the Australian authorities, who expelled him from the country a year ago, a doubting public and to himself. It is at such moments when Djokovic is at his most dangerous.

Djokovic has said he has forgiven but not forgotten the events of a year ago, when he became Australia’s public enemy No1 when landing on Australian soil without having had a Covid vaccine at a time when such a thing was a prerequisite.

His confinement and subsequent treatment before being evicted saw many soften in their initial vilification of him, and it has been interesting to see the warmth with which he has been received in Melbourne thus far into his return.

This time, the court system is not so much his main obstacle, rather his own body. At 35, he still remains one of the fittest players on tour, but he has been troubled by a hamstring injury.

Point to prove: Novak Djokovic is back in Australia, one year after being expelled from the country (Getty Images)

His withdrawal from an exhibition match against Daniil Medvedev, he insisted, was little more than a precaution — and he was moving well in practice earlier today at Melbourne Park. If fully fit, it would be hard to bet against Djokovic again going the distance at the Australian Open.

In his absence last year, there was the remarkable story of Nadal, back from a career-threatening injury, who somehow rolled back the years for a thrilling 21st Grand Slam title. His count is now 22 — one ahead of Djokovic — after winning at Roland Garros.

Nadal’s build-up has been equally rocky this time. An abdominal injury blighted the latter part of last season and his record in 2023 reads played two, lost two, including a first career defeat by British No1 Cameron Norrie. The Spaniard also faces a mightily tough draw, which begins with one of the rising stars of the men’s game, another Brit, in the form of Jack Draper.

Injury clouded Emma Raducanu’s first full year on the WTA Tour in 2022 and, despite a hard winter working with Andy Murray’s former strength and conditioning coach Jez Green, 2023 has begun where she left off.

Djokovic has said he has forgiven but not forgotten the events of a year ago, when he became Australia’s public enemy No1

An unfortunate on-court slip and twisted ankle at the ASB Classic has cast doubt over her Australian Open hopes, but her practice displays since have shown she is getting better each day.

Of her chances in Melbourne, she said simply: “Hopefully, by Monday or whenever the tournament starts for me, I’ll be okay and ready, but we’re just taking it a day at a time and not trying to expect too much at this point.”

Of the remaining British contingent, Andy Murray had talked about a deep run at a Grand Slam if he can simply string a first few wins together. The problem for him is he has an unforgiving first-round match against last year’s semi-finalist, Matteo Berrettini. Norrie looks the best bet to lead British aspirations, as he did on his way to the last four at Wimbledon in the summer.

The British No1 is on the precipice of a confidence-boosting tournament win on the eve of the Australian Open at the ASB Classic, as he faces Richard Gasquet in tomorrow’s final. Following wins over Nadal and Taylor Fritz, it means the Australian Open 11th seed is currently unbeaten in 2023.

Of the other Brits, Dan Evans is also seeded, but his results have ebbed and flowed, while it would be far-fetched to suggest that Kyle Edmund, finally back after three operations on his knee, can recapture the sort of form that once made him an Australian Open semi-finalist. The only other British woman in the draw, Harriet Dart, like Murray and Draper, has a tough opening test against the seeded Jil Teichmann.

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