All is forgiven as Novak Djokovic gets a hero’s reception – nine-time Australian Open champion returns to Melbourne Park following COVID ban to face off against Nick Kyrgios in exhibition match ahead of Grand Slam
- Novak Djokovic returned to Melbourne for the first time since his COVID ban
- He faced Nick Kyrgios in an exhibition match before the Australian Open
- He received a hero’s welcome before thanking the crowd on the microphone
- The nine-time champion has been granted a temporary visa to play this year
It was almost as if Novak Djokovic had never been away, or at least never been deported.
The Wimbledon champion admitted to feeling emotional after receiving a rousing ovation on his return to Melbourne Park, facing another player who polarises opinion, Nick Kyrgios.
The pair met in a repeat of last summer’s SW19 final and, in a less serious affair, it ended with them sharing 13 games.
Novak Djokovic returned to Melbourne Park to play an exhibition match ahead of the Australian Open
He faced off against Austrlalian Nick Kyrgios as the build-up to the tournament continues
Signposts for the important business coming over the next two weeks were hard to discern. However, that the ‘Arena Showdown’ happened at all after rumours of its cancellation sent a key message.
This is that there is nothing especially wrong with the hamstring injury which has been bothering the nine-time Melbourne champion, and which appears the main impediment to his title tally reaching double figures.
Earlier in the day, during his practice, his physio had been administering rubs and tape to the affected area, but he would not have played this exhibition if there was cause for concern.
‘I’m very happy. Thank you so much,’ he told the packed Rod Laver Arena crowd on his first appearance there for two years. ‘I feel a bit emotional right now. I was really looking forward to coming back to this court.’
Djokovic was banned from playing in the competition in 2022 due to issues around COVID
The match was a slightly strange add-on ahead of the Australian Open, another brainchild of hyperactive Tennis Australia, who have rarely seen a new idea or scheme that they have not wished to have a go at.
It was this mindset that last year got them into all the trouble with Djokovic, when the pandemic was still causing havoc.
Instead of stating that everyone needed to be vaccinated to play, an arrangement was concocted to get him into the country. That quickly fell apart when the national government realised the outrage. Sentiments are much more sanguine now in Melbourne, and it was all fandom at the RLA.
He was given a hero’s welcome as he returned to the city after being allowed to compete in the Grand Slam this year
Kyrgios, a controversial character, was in high spirits as the two competed in a charity match
Djokovic, mic’d up for the event, was also in good spirits and engaged with the crowd
Kyrgios’s relationship with his wider home public is also the source of some fascination. In a country sensitive about how it is viewed by the rest of the world, there are those who fear his excesses give a poor impression.
That, however, appears to be changing somewhat in line with him starting to deliver on his talent, rather than causing headlines via his outbursts.
According to nine-time Wimbledon doubles champion Todd Woodbridge — now a prominent TV presenter — even the more sceptical are starting to take a more charitable view.
‘He turned it around among the Australian public at Wimbledon, because he started backing everything up with actual results,’ Woodbridge told Sportsmail. ‘There used to be two groups of people here: the younger crowd who liked Nick and watched him, and the older more conservative crowd who didn’t like him but watched nonetheless.
‘He’s still got the younger crowd onside, but, say, middle-aged blokes who I play golf with, they are more inclined to wish him well and would want to support him, but that is because he has started to be winning on the court.’
Kyrgios is starting to change perceptions towards him from the split Australian public
The players are good friends and faced off for the first time since the Wimbledon final last year
Kyrgios has conceded that the expectations of playing in his home Grand Slam weigh heavily upon him. His withdrawal from the United Cup team event has further iced up his relationship with his fellow top Australian player, Alex de Minaur.
Another reason Kyrgios might be feeling the pressure is the imminent charge being heard against him that he assaulted his former girlfriend, Chiara Passari.
This is due to be heard in the week after the Open in his home town of Canberra. He has always disputed the charges.
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