Australian Open returns with Djokovic seeking redemption after being barred last year

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Novak Djokovic returns to the Australian Open this week seeking redemption on center court after the tennis superstar was barred from last year’s scandal-plagued tournament.

The focus is firmly on sport as the event begins Monday in Melbourne, with many fans hoping for a dream men’s final between long-time rivals Djokovic and defending champion Rafael Nadal.

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Australian fans’ hopes for another local victory, after Ash Barty seized the women’s title last year, were dealt a blow on Monday afternoon when Nick Kyrgios pulled out of the tournament with a knee injury. Several other stars including men’s world No.1 Carlos Alcaraz, Naomi Osaka and Venus Williams had already withdrawn.

The current lack of external drama offers some relief for organizers. Last year’s event was overshadowed by Djokovic’s deportation from Australia after the unvaccinated player sought to bypass Covid rules that have since been scrapped. The government feared he would strengthen anti-vaccination sentiment among a minority of the population as authorities battled to curb the virus’s spread.

Djokovic’s automatic three-year visa ban was overturned in November, allowing him to seek a 22nd Grand Slam win to draw level with Nadal as the most successful mens’ singles tennis player of all time. The Serbian star is scheduled to begin his campaign for a 10th Australian Open title on Tuesday.

“It just feels great to be back in Australia, back in Melbourne, “Djokovic said Friday after a warm-up match at the Open’s Rod Laver Arena venue, where he won his first major prize in 2008. “15 years later I’m here again, and I’m competing at the high level.”

Contenders for the women’s title include the world’s current top-ranked players Iga Swiatek and Ons Jabeur, following the retirement of Barty last year.

Tennis Australia will be hoping to rebuild finances following pandemic losses, after extending sponsorship deals with Kia Corp. and local pharmacy chain Chemist Warehouse to help plug the funding gap. The firm made just A$4.7 million in 2022 ($3.3 million) after losing A$75 million the previous financial year, according to its annual report.

“We are taking this year as an opportunity to invest in a platform for growth,” Tennis Australia Chief Executive Officer Craig Tiley told the Herald Sun newspaper in an interview. “We are not going to be bounding in profit, though the tournament is likely to break even,” he said.

Draw card

Djokovic’s deportation was by no means the first controversy to greet the Open. The 2020 event become a casualty of global warming as smoke from wildfires in south eastern Australia forced practice and qualification to be suspended over concern for player health days before the tournament began.

In the midst of the pandemic in 2021, some players — including Djokovic — complained about entering quarantine for two weeks on arrival, and crowds were sent home during a match as Melbourne was plunged into another lockdown to combat the virus spread.

The tournament is also one of Australia’s key tourism draw cards, with Melbourne seeking to swell local coffers as the city continues its recovery from virus curbs. The combined economic benefit of the past two events was about A$405 million, according to the Victoria state government, slightly more than that of the final pre-pandemic tournament in 2020.

“We’re ready to welcome visitors from near and far to revel in a festival of elite tennis, entertainment, and culture,” said Anthony Carbines, the state’s acting tourism minister. The event will deliver “a major boost to hotels, restaurants, bars, and small businesses.”

Read more: Tennis: Djokovic will overtake Federer’s Grand Slam tally, says coach Ivanisevic

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