Melbourne fans ready to make Djokovic feel welcome

| Updated: January 17, 2023 15:13:03

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is seen during a practice session at Melbourne Park in Australia on Saturday –Reuters file photo Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is seen during a practice session at Melbourne Park in Australia on Saturday –Reuters file photo

Novak Djokovic made his way to Melbourne for the Australian Open unsure about the reception he would receive after being deported before last year's Grand Slam over his unvaccinated status, but forgiving fans said the nine-times champion was welcome again.

According to Reuters, the 35-year-old was forced to return home to Serbia and miss last year's major for not taking his COVID-19 shots. He received a three-year travel ban from the country, which was waived in November and cleared the way for his return.

Djokovic's attempts to compete with a medical exemption last year enraged Australians who had endured tough lockdowns, with a January 2022 poll by the News Corp media group showing 83% of them favoured his deportation.

But 12 months on, fans at Melbourne Park said that they were willing to follow the lead of their Adelaide counterparts, who gave Djokovic a rousing reception throughout his title run in a warm-up tournament.

"Well I hope everyone makes him feel welcome," Jane Powell, an Adelaide resident attending the year's first Grand Slam, told Reuters TV.

"He's one of the best players in the world, so I'm glad he's going to be here to see what happens and see how competitive we can make the whole Australian Open. But I'm cheering for Rafa Nadal all the way."

Australian Open organisers have said any fans targeting Djokovic, who begins his quest for a 22nd Grand Slam to match Nadal against Roberto Carballes Baena on Tuesday, would be slapped with potential tournament bans.

But local supporter Louise Bielinski believes the crowd will only be respectful.

"I think they'll be great," Bielinski said. "I think everyone just respects him as a tennis player. Regardless of what happened. Just move on."

Another Melbourne resident, Leigh Harrison, echoed those views saying Adelaide had shown Melbourne the way forward.

"I was watching the tournament in Adelaide," Harrison said. "He seemed to get a really good reception. I think he'll get a reasonable reception. I think people have moved on now."

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