Deported defending champion Novak Djokovic was thousands of miles away when the Australian Open began on Monday, but his brooding presence and the visa saga that engulfed him loomed large.
Looking at a big poster of a grinning Djokovic greeting fans as they approached Rod Laver Arena, scene of so much glory for the nine-time Melbourne champion, fan Patricia Stevens told AFP: “It’s overshadowed the tournament.
“He could have avoided all this by getting vaccinated.”
The world number one from Serbia, who desperately wanted to defend his crown, flew out hours before the Grand Slam after his last-gasp court bid to stay in Australia without being vaccinated against Covid failed.
It’s not just the players on court who have to be jabbed — all those entering the Melbourne Park complex have to be inoculated or have a medical exemption. Fans also must wear a mask.
Under overcast skies, security guards checked vaccine passports as masked ticketholders scanned a QR code and shuffled through the turnstiles.
Fan capacity has been cut by 50 percent because of virus restrictions.
But there was still a buzz in the air as people made their way along the bank of the Yarra River and onto the bright blue carpeted reception area, to the jaunty sound of a flamboyantly dressed trombone-and-drum two-piece band.
“Obviously, there’s still Omicron. That’s still at the back of your head but at the same time, we haven’t really been able to enjoy ourselves for a long time so I’m going to take the opportunity to do so, I think,” said fan John Steele.
Melbourne has endured some of the toughest coronavirus restrictions in the world over the course of the pandemic — one reason why Djokovic’s refusal to get vaccinated and try to play with a medical exemption caused so much public anger.
– ‘They did the right thing’ -Melbourne resident Simon Overton said he was glad the controversy was over and the focus could get back to tennis.
“I mean, it’s been a distraction hasn’t it?” he said. “I think they did the right thing asking him to leave… the tournament is about so much more than him.”
Fellow Australian Sarah Wals agreed, saying the decision was “better for everyone”.
“People can focus on the tennis now, not on unvaccinated players,” she said.
Djokovic entered Australia claiming a medical exemption because of a recent Covid infection, but was detained at the border and taken to an immigration detention centre.
A judge overturned that decision, but the Australian government then cancelled his visa for a second time.
“We didn’t handle it perfectly,” said Tom Crvenkovic, another Melbourne resident. “I think both sides are to blame. He got treated poorly and we could have handled the situation better.”
One German spectator said “the Djokovic disaster” had made him a bit nervous.
“(About) what the people are like… if there are any Serbs protesting. If it’s peaceful,” Udo Wellman said.