MELBOURNE, Australia -- Flanked by security personnel and members of his traveling entourage, Novak Djokovic strode briskly through a near-empty Tullamarine Airport, his eyes fixed on the white tiles shining underneath his feet. A KN95 mask concealed a large portion of his face, but there was still no hiding the utter dejection.
The 2022 Australian Open was just hours from kicking off, yet the reigning men's champion, and then-world No. 1, was preparing to depart Melbourne on an Emirates flight bound for Dubai, before jetting back home to Serbia.
Djokovic had just been embroiled in an 11-day legal battle in which he attempted to have his Australian visa reinstated following its cancellation. The unvaccinated tennis star ultimately failed in his bid, and Djokovic was deported and effectively handed a three-year ban from the country, with Australian immigration law preventing him from reapplying for a visa until at least 2025.
For one of the few occasions in his professional career, Djokovic left Melbourne a defeated man. He hadn't played a single minute on court, yet he appeared more drained than in the immediate aftermath of any of his nine Australian Open titles.
"It's one of those things that stays with you for, I guess, the rest of your life. You can't forget those events," Djokovic explained. "It was not easy for me, for my family, team, or anybody who is close to me."
Later, he told 9News Melbourne: "It was so big in the media that I just could not fight it. I was drawn into a storm in media worldwide that was related to anything to do with COVID and the vaccine. Everything got out of hand and then I was labelled as this or that. I became the villain of the world, which is obviously a terrible place to be in as an athlete. I stayed for several weeks at home, didn't really go around too much. I just hoped the situation would calm down."
Djokovic's ignominious exit was met with support among the majority of Australians, in particularly Melburnians who were subject to strict lockdowns throughout 2021. There had been a feeling among locals that Djokovic would be receiving preferential treatment by the Australian government if he were able to take part in the Australian Open, which could have sparked further public outrage.
Much has changed over the past 12 months. Australia, like many nations, has dropped its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for foreign arrivals. And, just as crucially for Djokovic, his three-year ban was reversed in November, with Australian immigration minister Andrew Giles confirming Djokovic would be granted a temporary visa to enter the country and compete in the 2023 tournament, to which the Serbian star declared: "I could not have received better news."
Not only does it offer Djokovic the chance to draw even with Rafael Nadal for the most major wins in men's tennis history, but there is an opportunity for redemption. An opportunity to win back fans. Last year's dramatic deportation saga was just another incident in what has been a checkered recent past for Djokovic, and his reputation has seemingly taken beating upon beating.
In January 2020, shortly after his triumph at Melbourne Park, the tennis world was thrust into a near five-month hiatus as COVID-19 began wreaking havoc around the globe. In an effort to remain fit, Djokovic proposed the idea of an exhibition-style tournament in his home region of the Balkans. The ATP gave it the green light, allowing it to take place between June and July.
The event, dubbed the "Adria Tour," promptly came under heavy criticism for the lack of social-distancing protocols at stadiums, with thousands of fans seen mingling without face masks. A video also circulated showing Djokovic and a host of other tennis stars partying at the Lafayette Cuisine Cabaret Club in Belgrade. Days later, Djokovic and wife Jelena announced they had both contracted COVID-19. The remainder of the event was canceled immediately.
A few months later, with the dust of the Adria Tour finally settled, Djokovic arrived in New York as the overwhelming favorite for the US Open. The absence of Roger Federer and Nadal meant Djokovic was one of just three Grand Slam champions -- along with Andy Murray and Marin Cilic -- in the entire men's draw. It was his tournament to lose.
But Djokovic's name again made headlines for all the wrong reasons following his fourth-round match against Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta. After dropping his serve in the 11th game of the opening set, and falling behind 5-6, Djokovic took a spare ball out of his pocket and slapped it firmly behind the court, striking a linesperson in the throat. Djokovic immediately raised his arm to signal his lack of intent before rushing over to assist. Nevertheless, it left tournament referee Soeren Friemel with little choice but to disqualify him from the event and strip him of the $250,000 prize money he would have received for reaching the last 16.
By the time January 2022 rolled around, when Djokovic was boarding that flight out of Australia, his reputation was at an all-time low. The question everyone has been pondering ahead of this year's tournament was just how would he be received.
It was only ever going to go one of two ways. Djokovic could have returned to Australia holding a severe grudge with the country, government and people over what he believed was mistreatment in 2022. He could have shown little remorse for how last year unfolded and even looked to bait crowds during his matches. And while it might have made for enthralling viewing, Djokovic said it wasn't the right path to take. "If I do hold the grudges [and] if I'm not able to move on, I wouldn't be here," he said.
Instead, Djokovic orchestrated a public relations masterstroke. He opted out of the United Cup in Sydney in favor of the Adelaide International, quietly dipping his toes into the waters before flying to Melbourne for a charity match.
He squared off against local hero Nick Kyrgios in an exhibition on the eve of the Australian Open -- one that sold out in just 58 minutes. Djokovic received rapturous applause as he made his highly anticipated return to Rod Laver Arena, the court where he has enjoyed the vast majority of his professional success. He endeared himself to the Australian public by laughing and joking alongside Kyrgios, high-fiving ball kids and interacting with fans, before speaking highly of the country.
"It's great to be back here in Australia. This is the court and the stadium where I created the best memories of my professional tennis career," he said. "I was very emotional coming into the court. I didn't know how that was going to go after the events of last year. I'm very grateful for the kind energy and reception, love and support I got."
Djokovic opened his Australian Open campaign Tuesday evening against Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena, cruising to a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 win and extending his winning streak on Australian soil to 35 matches.
The idea he would be booed upon his return to Rod Laver Arena was quickly put to rest with the nine-time Australian Open champion receiving a rousing reception when he entered the stadium. Melbourne is a multicultural metropolis, a city in which more than 30,000 Serbian Australians call home. Many of which turned out to support their hero.