Sports

Novak’s coming back, and hoping for Melbourne’s Open heart

Tennis fans have a long history of embracing former villains.

Sometimes villainy is patronized by the overly dominant. Martina Navratilova once said of the audience’s lack of affection when she beat everyone: “I wanted the audience to like me more.” John McEnroe was the central casting villain and shares with Djokovic the infamy of enduring the low point of his career in Australia, where he was kicked out of the 1990 Open.

Novak shares Navratilova’s desire for the affection of the crowd – it’s a desire he’s worn on his sleeve, often with opposite results – but his story is more complicated. There is the self-pity, and also the clinical manner of his triumphs. And then there’s his biggest bad luck: having shared the stage with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, whose love affair with fans and with each other came to full expression when Federer retired to London in September.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal after they last played together in September.Credit:AP

With tennis stadiums packed with fans enthralled by Roger and Rafa, the story was crying out for a villain. That role fell to Djokovic, and helps explain why the vaccination fiasco left him with more brutal brickbats than could have been used against any of his great rivals.

Rehabilitation has come during the year. It helped that he lost to a resurgent Nadal in his first Grand Slam event in Paris. He won Wimbledon, but received no ranking points due to a dispute between Wimbledon and the players over the tournament’s ban on Russian participants.

Even Djokovic’s craziest critics had to admit that that seemed unfair, and the practical result is that he comes to Australia ranked No. 5 in the world. That’s strange territory for him.

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All in all, he will surely return humbled by the events and hoping for a fresh start. Federer will not be there and Nadal has been struggling with injuries lately. A new group of young players finally take the lead, led by the new world number 1, Carlos Alcaraz.

Djokovic may very well play the part of elder statesman in Melbourne – chastened by experience and meeting the Australian mob somewhere in the middle: a graceful return with a generous spirit. It won’t be a love-in – like tennis thugs before him, Djokovic may have to wait for retirement for that – but I think he will be greeted warmly.

After the last two years, it is a relief to approach the Open and focus on the only thing that matters: the tennis. May the best player win.

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Merry

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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