EXPLAINER: Novak Djokovic’s successful return to Australia

Sports

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic was still in the first set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Andrey Rublev when the guy who would face the winner of that match, Tommy Paul, sat down for a news conference.

“Probably have a better chance of winning if it’s Rublev,” Paul said with a smile, “but to play Novak here in Australia would be awesome.”

Well, he’ll get that chance Friday at Rod Laver Arena in the semifinals.

Djokovic was never really tested en route to beating No. 5 seed Rublev 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 on Wednesday night to extend his winning streak at Melbourne Park to 26 matches, tied with Andre Agassi for the longest run by a man there in the Open era, which dates to 1968.

If he makes that 28 in a row with victories over the unseeded Paul and then either No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas or No. 18 Karen Khachanov in Sunday’s final, Djokovic would earn his 10th championship at the Australian Open, adding to a mark he already owns, and his 22nd from all Grand Slam tournaments, equaling Rafael Nadal’s record for men.

There was, of course, a pause during Djokovic’s streak: He did not play in last year’s Australian Open, which is part of what he calls the “something extra” that made made him want “to really do well” this time around.

Here’s a look at why Djokovic was not at the tournament in 2022, why he is back in 2023, and whether anyone can prevent him from leaving town with the trophy:

WHY WASN’T DJOKOVIC AT LAST YEAR’S AUSTRALIAN OPEN?

The short answer: He wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19. The longer answer: Djokovic sought, and initially obtained, an exemption that would allow him into the tournament — and the country — even though there were strict rules requiring shots. But after his flight landed, he was detained at the airport, his visa was canceled and he was sent to an immigration hotel. A judge later reinstated the visa and ordered Djokovic’s release, ruling he wasn’t given enough time to speak to his lawyers. Australia’s immigration minister then took away the visa again, based on “public interest.” Djokovic’s appeal of that ruling was denied by a three-judge panel, and he was deported. He faced a possible three-year ban from the country as someone whose visa was revoked.

WHY IS HE PLAYING THERE THIS YEAR?

Djokovic, a 35-year-old from Serbia, is still not vaccinated against the illness caused by the coronavirus — and has said he won’t get inoculated, even if it means missing tournaments. But Australia had a change of government, the country’s pandemic border rules changed, and the current immigration minister granted him a visa this time. (As of now, the United States still bars unvaccinated foreigners, which could prevent Djokovic from competing at the U.S. Open for the second year in a row.)

HOW HAS HE BEEN RECEIVED BY SPECTATORS?

From the moment he arrived in Melbourne, Djokovic has been showered with affection (other than from the occasional persistent heckler ). Dozens of Serbian flags dot the stands during this matches. So do signs proclaiming him the sport’s “GOAT” — “Greatest of All-Time.” Chants of his two-syllable nickname, “No-le! No-le!” fill the air repeatedly.

HOW IS HE PLAYING?

Djokovic got off to a slow start, hampered by an injured left hamstring that was taped for each match. But after playing at something less than his best, what he has said is a rigorous treatment regimen and “a lot” of pain-killing pills helped him look superb lately: He has won 11 consecutive sets and ceded just 27 games. Here was Alex de Minaur’s takeaway after losing to Djokovic 6-2, 6-1, 6-2: “If that’s the level, I think he’s definitely the guy that’s going to take the title.” On Wednesday, Djokovic called his last two performances “something that sends a message to all my opponents remaining in the draw.”

CAN ANYONE BEAT HIM?

A key statistic: Djokovic is a combined 18-0 in semifinals and finals in Melbourne. Plus, not only is he the only man left who owns a Grand Slam trophy, the other three semifinalists have participated in a total of one major final: Tsitsipas was the runner-up to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open, taking a two-set lead before losing in five. One might think Tsitsipas would be the one who would like to forget that ever happened, but it was Djokovic who seemed to not remember the other day, when he said about the 24-year-old from Greece: “He has never played a final, am I wrong?” Reminded by reporters about Roland Garros, Djokovic replied: “That’s right. Sorry, my bad.” As for head-to-head against the semifinalists, Djokovic has never played Paul, is 10-2 against Tsitsipas (winning the last nine) and 8-1 against Khachanov (winning the last seven). Looking ahead to facing Paul, an American ranked 35th, Djokovic said: “If I play this way, I think I have a good chance to go through.”

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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