MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 5, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)
World No. 1 and nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic ended weeks of speculation about whether he would play in this year’s first major, announcing on his social media platforms Tuesday that he will be coming to Melbourne after receiving a medical exemption from being vaccinated against the coronavirus.
While Djokovic has repeatedly declined to reveal his vaccination status and previously said he was uncertain about playing in this year’s Australian Open, which runs Jan. 17-30 in Melbourne, it is now a certainty. The native of Belgrade, Serbia recently has been spotted training in Marbella, Spain.
“I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022,” Djokovic wrote on Instagram.
“I’m ready to live and breathe tennis in the next few weeks of competition. Thankseveryone for the support.”
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Soon after Djokovic’s announcement, Australian Open organizers confirmed the medical exemption, noting it was approved by independent experts. The Victoria state government, which governs the city of Melbourne, had mandated that all players, staff and fans attending this year’s Australian Open be fully vaccinated unless a legitimate reason for an exemption exists.
The tournament organizer’s statement read: “Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts. One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health. They assessed all applications to see if they met the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization guidelines.”
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said: “Fair and independent protocols were established for assessing medical exemption applications that will enable us to ensure Australian Open 2022 is safe and enjoyable for everyone.”
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said at a press conference this morning Djokovic was one of 26 applicants who applied for a medical exemption and one of a handful granted. #9News https://t.co/v3NFRDvvT7
— 9News Australia (@9NewsAUS) January 5, 2022
Djokovic’s participation is big news because he and Rafael Nadal, who will compete in this year’s Australian Open, as well as Roger Federer, who is recovering from knee surgery and won’t be playing, are all tied for most career major singles crowns with 20. A 21st title victory by either Djokovic or Nadal in Melbourne would break the tie.
The announcement of Djokovic’s clearance to play in the Australian Open drew criticism from Great Britain’s Jamie Murray, older brother of Andy Murray, who is competing at the ATP Cup in Sydney this week. The elder Murray said during a news conference Tuesday evening: “I think it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption, and that’s … You know well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete.”
Great Britain’s team captain Liam Broady added: “At the end of the day, you kind of have to trust that he does have a valid reason for the medical exemption. That’s all you can say about it, really, isn’t it?”
Jamie Murray questions Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open medical exemption – video https://t.co/X7uTqbvNWv
— The Guardian (@guardian) January 4, 2022
During Team Australia’s press conference, following their ATP Cup loss against Russia Tuesday evening in Sydney, Alex de Minaur commented: “Look, I just think it’s very interesting, that’s all I’m going to say. But, hey, it is what it is. I just hope that the other players that I heard there were other cases as well, they got exemptions. So, I hope they will all fit the criteria.”
Osaka returns to tennis, wins in her 2022 debut – and is happy
Former World No. 1 Naomi Osaka of Japan, a two-time Australian Open winner and the defending women’s champion, made her long-awaited return to competitive tennis Tuesday at the Melbourne Summer Set 1 at Melbourne Park.
The 13th-ranked Osaka, who decided to step away from tennis and take a mental health break following an early-round loss to Leylah Fernandez at the US Open last September, defeated No. 61 Alizé Cornet of France, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, in just over two hours on Rod Laver Arena. Although Osaka placed just 40 percent (32 of 81) of her first serves in play and committed eight double faults, she also hit 35 winners and forced Cornet into making 29 hitting errors. Osaka outpointed the 61st-ranked Cornet 94-90 to advance against No 82 Maryna Zanevska of Belgium.
— wta (@WTA) January 4, 2022
Overall, Osaka played both loose and seemed pretty chill for her first match back following her four- month hiatus. Afterward, she sat down for a lengthy interview session with international media and fielded questions in both English and Japanese. Throughout, she seemed at ease and wasn’t afraid to break into a smile as she spoke.
Among Osaka’s press conference highlights:
“I feel like for me, I only really have one major goal this year, and it’s completely unrelated to results and stuff like that. For me, I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m either – not that I’m either, but I’m having fun. I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.
“Also, I have a goal in the press room, that I’m never going to cry again, so hopefully that works out in my favor.
“I’m the type of person that cared a little bit too much about the results and the ranking and stuff like that. And I just need to find a way to enjoy the game again because that’s the reason why I was playing in the first place.”
“During the off-season I hung out with my friends and talked to my family a lot. I felt like that was a way of decompressing the pressure I had on myself. Then I just slowly started to regain the feeling of love that I had towards the game.”@naomiosaka | #MelbourneTennis pic.twitter.com/FC2f9NFLPx
— wta (@WTA) January 4, 2022
Osaka said during the off-season, she hung out with her friends and talked to her family a lot. “I felt like that was a way of decompressing the pressure I had on myself,” she explained. “Then, I just slowly started to regain the feeling of love that I had towards the game.
“It’s not like it every completely went away, but I felt like it got overshadowed by a lot of emotions that I was feeling just by constantly playing year after year since I was like – I started tennis when I was three years old, and I never really took a break.
“Yeah, sometimes it’s just good to remember why you’re playing and stuff.”
• World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty of Australia, who began her 2022 season today as the top seed at the Adelaide International 1 in South Australia, came back from a set and break down to beat 22nd-ranked Coco Gauff of the United States, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. Understandably, Barty was not at her sharpest, but she found a way to win. One thing is certain: The 25-year-old Barty is respectful of new and emerging talent on the WTA tour.
— Tennis Channel (@TennisChannel) January 5, 2022
“There were certainly a number of breakout years through 2021, girls really stepped up, were able to play really consistent seasons which is exciting to see for the women’s game,” Barty said during a pre-tournament interview with international reporters.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 4, 2022
”You have obviously seen those girls that have been at the top for a very long time. Some had a rough run with injury, others had pretty slid years. It feels like it’s just good competition.
“Genuinely there is really good depth and you have to bring your best time and time again to be able to compete with everyone and give yourself a chance to win the big titles.”
• World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, seeded second at Adelaide this week, was upset in the second round Wednesday afternoon by No. 100 Kaja Juvan of Slovenia, 7-6 (6), 6-1. Sabelenka’s undoing was committing 18 double faults, 11 of them in the second set. She placed just 48 percent (32 of 66) of her first serves in play overall and just 22 percent (7 of 32) in the final set. The win was the biggest of the 21-year-old Juvan’s budding career and the first time she’s beaten a player ranked in the Top 10.
“It feels pretty good, I’m not going to lie. Pretty good,” Juvan said during her on-court interview after beating Sabalenka in 89 minutes and outpointing her more-experienced opponent 76-50.
“I’m trying to play with more with the ball and not think about the opponent too much. Of course, I was a little bit scared at first because she’s incredible and has done so many things really, really well. On the other hand, it’s the start of the season and it depends upon the day. I believed from the beginning that I could do it.”
Roaring into the quarterfinals 💥
— wta (@WTA) January 5, 2022
Later, during her press conference, Juvan was asked what a win over the World No. 2 means to her. She said: “For me it was super important that I was able to even play with her. That was the first beginning. Even playing and be like, ‘Okay, I can can play with this girl, I can keep the level up.’ That was the most important thing for me.
“The second part was just keeping my focus, staying mentally there. I mean, to be honest, I try to take every match the same because I learned the hard lesson last year of sometimes you feel like you should win and you don’t, and sometimes you win against great players. It’s like, all right, depends on the day a little bit.
“I’m just super glad I get to play one more match. I’m super happy we did a great pre-season and that I feel much better on the court now.”
• In advance of Rafael Nadal beginning his season as the No. 1 seed in the Melbourne Summer Set 1, where he will face 104th-ranked qualifier Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania in his first match on Thursday in the second round, the World No. 6 is also playing doubles this week with fellow Spaniard Jaume Munar.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) January 4, 2022
By the numbers
With six tournaments this week spread across Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, plus four more tournaments next week leading up the the year’s first major, the Australian Open in Melbourne, TennisConnected.com’s Amy Lundy Dahl reminded us in a recent post titled “Rational Numbers” that Australia “is serving up a whopping 585 scheduled main draw ATP/WTA singles matches this month.” Indeed, that’s a lot of tennis.
For instance, in a much-anticipated rematch of last year’s Indian Wells final, World No. 27 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus knocked off World No. 8 and fourth seed Paula Badosa of Spain, 6-3, 6-2 in an opening-round match.
— wta (@WTA) January 4, 2022
In another high-profile, early-round match, No. 134 Andy Murray of Great Britain lost to World No. 76 Facundo Bagnis of Argentina, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 at the Melbourne Summer Set 1 Tuesday evening. Murray finished 20-16 in all competitions last year and was a recent finalist at last month’s Mubadala World Tennis Championship exhibition event in Abu Dhabi.
— LTA (@the_LTA) January 4, 2022
• “Just the start of the year is always – it can be tricky, to be completely honest. It can easily go both ways. I’ve been very fortunate to have very good matches at the start of the year, and I think that really helps me to get into a very good rhythm, and I think that’s probably the biggest, I think, plus for me.”
– World No. 28 Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, who is seeded third in this week’s Melbourne Summer Set 1, and faces Facundo Bagnis of Argentina in his first match on Thursday.
• “Growing up I was taught that pressure and stress will be my best friend and I’m just going to take this tournament as that, just seeing where my game is at in the first tournament of the year.”
– Leylah Fernandez of Canada, who capped a breakout 2021 season by reaching the finals of the US Open, as told to the WTA Insider. Fernandez is beginning her 2022 season at the Adelaide International 1, where a first-round win over Ekaterina Alexandrova has advanced her to face World No. 9 Iga Swiatek in the second round.
What they’re sharing on social media
Congratulations, Sloane Stephens!
Congratulations to Sloane Stephens & @JozyAltidore, who kicked off 2022 by tying the knot ❤️
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 5, 2022