He was nowhere and he was everywhere. Etched into the pavement and lingering in the air, each fragile fragment of an atmosphere carrying resentment and relief and quite a bit in between. Melbourne Park is the home of Novak Djokovic’s hubris, the venue at which he won his very first grand slam and has enjoyed the most success of his career to date.
His psyche – that controversial soul of his – is seared into the seats at Rod Laver Arena, where he has lifted nine singles trophies but will not chase a 10th this year. Now it feels he has been cast as Voldemort, the Dark Lord who must not be named – at least by pretty much every player who is not Serbian.
Naomi Osaka was the first invited to offer her two cents: “Do you believe Djokovic should be playing at the abierto de Australia este año?” a journalist asked after her opening-round win over Colombian Camila Osorio. “Is my opinion going to help anything?” she replied. The media pressed on. But what did other players think of the situation? "Sí, I’ll kind of pass on that," ella dijo. “Thanks, though.”
Gaël Monfils simply would not be drawn. Rafael Nadal, the only former champion left in the draw, was a little more expansive. “I think the situation has been a mess,” he said after overwhelming American Marcos Giron – a statement win in his own campaign to reach a record 21 títulos de grand slam. “He’s not the only one that probably did bad things in that case. There are more [fiestas] responsible in this terrible situation we’ve faced over the last two weeks, but he’s one of those responsible.”
Y luego: “I don’t want to talk anymore about that.”
The Serbian competitors, aunque, were in the mood for a roasting. Dusan Lajovic, who saw off Marton Fucsovics in five sets, dicho: “the way they treated him was terribly wrong”.
Laslo Đere, who was knocked out by Denis Shapovalov, lamented a “true catastrophic situation”. “To tell you the truth," él dijo, “I think not just Serbians, I think the whole world saw it and they probably will have a new or different opinion about Australia.”
Miomir Kecmanovic, Entretanto, got busy exacting retribution on behalf of his countryman.
“I think it wasn’t handled well and things could have gone so much smoother and better for everybody,” the 77th-ranked 22-year-old said. “It’s definitely terrible that they had to kick him out like that. We said that we’re going to give everything we have, try to avenge him in a way, and make him proud.”
Algunos 24 hours ago Kecmanovic was still scheduled to play his opening match against Djokovic under lights on Rod Laver. In the absence of his box-office opponent, he was relegated to 1573 Arena in the afternoon sun, and in front of significantly fewer spectators. A grand total of 104 punters watched him close out the third set against Djokovic’s replacement in the draw, Salvatore Caruso.
The Italian had dubbed himself “the most famous lucky loser in the world”. Kecmanovic must have felt at least a little lucky too, having advanced to the second round largely because he faced the world No 150 instead of the world No 1. Serbian supporters were few and far between on Monday, a stark contrast to the scenes outside Carlton’s Park Hotel where Djokovic was held ahead of his failed court challenge to have his cancelled visa reinstated for a second time. But there were two men clapping enthusiastically after each point at one end of the court. Up the other end was a group of five, who let out the odd chant and earned a post-match handshake from Kecmanovic for their efforts.
Less than three hours later Alexander Zverev and Daniel Altmaier were slogging out an all-German contest in his original slot. They entertained a complimentary centre-court crowd. There were no boos or unsavoury commentary; he-who-must-not-be-named was not present.
It was in stark contrast to last year’s final. In the minutes after Djokovic beat Daniil Medvedev to the 2021 título, the crowd booed during the presentation ceremony, set off by the Tenis Australia president’s mention of Covid-19 vaccines. Victoria had already endured one of the world’s most gruelling lockdowns and just emerged from a snap second (there have now been six) and vaccination was a hot topic.
Djokovic had been a divisive talking point too, having contracted the virus seven months prior at his unsanctioned Adria Tour, featuring a now infamous dance party. The event was branded a super-spreader and curtailed while he had subsequently drawn criticism for sending Tennis Australia some pre-tournament suggestions on how they might improve conditions for the mass of players in hotel quarantine.
Monday’s atmosphere was cordial, but it was also heavy with the remnants of a story that will not go away, the irritating butt of a cigarette that cannot be disposed off because no one can locate a bin.
“I hope that in the future he [Djokovic] will be the best tennis player in history,” Lajovic said. “And that this will be only looked at as a setback on his path to be the best tennis player to ever play the sport. This is my opinion, and I don’t think there is more to add to it.”