Rafael Nadal says he “doesn’t care much” if his record 21st Grand Slam title makes him the best men’s tennis player in history, after edging ahead of great rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic with his thrilling Australian Open win.
The 35-year-old Spaniard roared back from two sets down to defeat Russian second seed Daniil Medvedev on Sunday in the final in Melbourne in what he called “the biggest comeback of my career”.
Having suffered a foot injury last year which left him wondering if he would even play again, Nadal’s stunning victory propelled him into the history books and left Federer and Djokovic trailing on 20 major crowns.
Federer was absent from Melbourne because of injury and the unvaccinated Djokovic was deported on the eve of the tournament after Australia cancelled his visa.
But Nadal does not intend to dwell for too long on the wider significance, even though “I know it’s a special number, 21”.
“I feel honoured, I feel lucky to achieve one more very special thing in my tennis career,” Nadal told reporters early on Monday morning, the match having spilled over into the next day.
“I don’t care much if I am the one or not the one, or the best of the history, not the best of the history.
“Honestly today I don’t care much. For me it’s about enjoying nights like today. That means everything for me.”
Nadal, whose second Australian Open title came 13 years after his first one, showed remarkable resilience against the younger Medvedev, who was touted as the favourite in the absence of defending champion Djokovic.
Nadal, whose brilliant career has been punctuated by injures, called the gruelling 2-6, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 win “a very emotional night”.
It was even more so because of his foot injury and having also been “very sick” with Covid after testing positive in December.
“For the last six months, I really fought a lot to try to be back on court,” said Nadal.
“Have been very, very tough moments… conversations, tough ones, because you don’t know if I was going to have the chance to be back on the tour.”
Nadal said he wanted to celebrate more at the end, but just did not have it in him.
“Even now I am destroyed, honestly, physically,” he said.
“I can’t think much, I can’t remember a lot of moments of the match,” added Nadal, who was so exhausted afterwards that he took a seat during the post-match announcements.
“The support of the crowd have been just huge. I got very emotional during the whole match.
“Even if I was super tired, I couldn’t celebrate with them as usual, but I feel it inside, all the support helped me a lot during the whole match.”
It’s been a week of drama at the Africa Cup of Nations. Nigeria’s shocking loss to Tunisia, and the red cards that marred the competition, were major talking points in the last seven days. Heartbroken fans trolled Maduka Okoye and Alex Iwobi following the defeat which sent out one of the tournament favourites.
These stories, FIFA’s linking of plans for a biennial World Cup to migration tragedies in the Mediterranean and others, headline First Eleven which gives a recap of the biggest sports gist for the week.
Tunisia Clip Eagles’ Wings
The week began on a sad note for football fans in Nigeria after the Super Eagles’ early exit from the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). Nigeria, three-time continental champions, were stunned 0-1 by Tunisia in a Round of 16 game in Cameroon.
Austine Eguavoen’s men went into the game as favourites having won all three group stage matches, the only team to do so. But a 47th-minute strike was enough for the North Africans to break the hearts of millions of fans in Nigeria. Although Nigeria battled to get the equaliser, a red card for former Arsenal star, Alex Iwobi, compounded the Super Eagles’ woes.
Fans Troll Okoye, Iwobi
Iwobi’s sending off triggered a barrage of cyberattacks, not just on the midfielder but goalkeeper, Maduka Okoye. The Sparta Rotterdam man was faulted for not doing enough to stop the 2004 champions from scoring the lone goal in the match. Both were subjects of hate messages from fans who blamed the duo for the Super Eagles’ exit. Their names trended for days on social media, prompting them to disable comments on their Instagram accounts. Okoye, some of the fans claimed, was distracted by praises from female admirers.
Following the defeat, President Muhammadu Buhari had told Nigerians not to write off the team. In a short message on Monday, he asked fans to encourage the side, believing that they can do better in subsequent games.
“They gave everyone the confidence that they were up to it, and I am sure it was something they could have achieved,” a statement from a presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, read. “Nonetheless, we should not write them off”.
Red Cards Mar AFCON
Nigeria’s loss wasn’t the only thing that made headlines from the AFCON. In the first round of knockout fixtures, seven red cards were issued in eight games. The development drew condemnation from several quarters. Fans on social media even dubbed the competition “AFCON of Red Cards”, throwing up further debates about the quality of officiating at Africa’s premier championship.
Coach Eguavoen was critical of centre referee, Maguette Ndiaye’s dismissal of the Everton star, describing the officiating as unfair. Aside from the former defender, Ghanaian ex-international, Mikel Essien, also questioned the number of red cards in the tournament. The former Chelsea player while lamenting the situation said it was “shocking” and wondered if the game had become soft.
Tragedy Rocks Tournament
The red car controversy came amid a stampede that killed eight persons and wounded dozens of others before a match between the host nation, Cameroon, and Comoros. The incident took place at the gates where final tickets checks are made. This prompted an investigation by Cameroonian authorities. The health ministry said the victims were immediately transported in ambulances but traffic slowed down their movement.
“If that gate was open as it was supposed to, we wouldn’t have had this problem we have now, this loss of life,” African football supremo, Patrice Motsepe, said during a press conference on Tuesday. “Who closed that gate? Who is responsible for that gate?”
A Case For Biennial World Cup
The stampede happened days before FIFA tried to link migration tragedies in the Mediterranean to plans for a World Cup every two years. Head of the football governing body, Gianni Infantino, said the move can give hope to migrants.
“I understand in Europe the World Cup takes place twice per week because the best players are playing in Europe,” he told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg.
“But if we think about the rest of the world… which doesn’t see the best players, which doesn’t participate in the top competitions, then we have to think about what football brings, which goes beyond the sport.”
Nadal Chases Record In Australia
Just as FIFA continues to make a case for a biennial World Cup, tennis stars are in Australia battling for one of the game’s biggest prizes. In a tempestuous match on Friday, Daniil Medvedev powered to a win over Stefanos Tsitsipas to book a date with Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open. The world number two beat Tsitsipas 7-6 (7/5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, the same day Nadal defeated Matteo Berrettini to reach his sixth Australian Open final in Melbourne. The Spaniard, pushing to become the all-all time men’s Grand Slam leader – 21 titles – claimed a 3-6 2-6 6-3 3-6 win.
The women’s category saw a ruthless Ashleigh Barty book a spot in the final. She won in straight-sets, demolishing Madison Keys, and will now face hard-hitting Danielle Collins in Sunday’s game.
Djokovic Still In The Court
Although he is not in Australia, a leaked entry list, which made its way to social media, has indicated that Novak Djokovic would be playing at next month’s ATP Dubai tennis tournament. The Serb was in the news weeks ago after a COVID-19 vaccination row. But the list shared by tennis journalists showed that Djokovic was named as the top seed for the event.
This is coming weeks after he was deported by Australian authorities following a legal tussle. The unvaccinated player’s next move had become a subject of speculation since he landed at home in Belgrade, via Dubai. He was initially given an exemption to play at the Australian Open despite being unvaccinated but the Australian government later revoked his visa, a move upheld by the Federal Court.
Earlier in the week, the English Premier League “sack race” continued. This time, Italian manager, Claudio Ranieri, was the latest casualty following his dismissal by Watford. He was sacked just after 14 games in charge as the Hornets’ boss, the club said in a statement earlier in the week. Ranieri was dismissed, just about three months after he got the job.
“The Hornets’ Board recognises Claudio as a man of great integrity and honour, who will always be respected here at Vicarage Road for his efforts in leading the team with dignity,” Watford said about the Italian.
The 70-year-old was brought on to stabilise the team which is battling relegation. But a string of poor results have left them in the murky waters of England’s elite league. The Hornets have only managed seven points since he arrived at the Vicarage Road. Ranieri’s last game in charge was a 3-0 loss to relegation rivals, Norwich, just last week. They are second bottom on the league log, following a loss of seven out of their last eight domestic matches.
Joshua Denies Pay Off Claims
In boxing, Anthony Joshua has refuted reports claiming he agreed to a ($20 million deal to step aside from his heavyweight title re-match with Oleksandr Usyk. The reports had suggested that the Nigerian was ready to let the Ukrainian fight Tyson Fury in the unification title bout. But Joshua insisted the stories were false.
“I’m hearing people saying: ‘AJ accepts £15million to step aside’. I ain’t signed no contract; I ain’t seen no contract,” he was quoted as saying in a Talksport online video posted on Twitter. “So, as it stands, stop listening to the bullshit until it comes from me. I’m the man in control of my own destiny; I’m the man that handles my business.”
Usyk had defeated Joshua in September to deprive the 32-year-old of his World Boxing Association (WBA), International Boxing Federation (IBF), and World Boxing Organization (WBO) belts.
Buhari’s Message To Olympians
And as the Winter Olympics inches closer, President Buhari has urged Nigerian athletes to make the country proud in the games. A statement from the presidency on Tuesday quoted Buhari as telling the nation’s representatives of his trust in their ability to deliver.
“The President trusts that Nigerian athletes participating in different events will excel at the competition, surpassing the previous record in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018, when the nation competed for the first time,” the Nigerian leader told the athletes, according to a statement from Femi Adesina.
Buhari said the Olympic Games is an avenue to foster friendship among countries. This is as he hoped that athletes will put the core values of the event – excellence, friendship, and respect – on display.
An imperious Ashleigh Barty said it was a dream come true after on Saturday becoming the first Australian to win her home Grand Slam in 44 years, but the memories made along the way were more important than the trophy.
The world number one was 5-1 down in the second set against fearless American Danielle Collins but came storming back to win on a tiebreak and sweep past the 27th seed 6-3, 7-6 (7/2) and be crowned Australian Open champion.
It was a third Slam title for the 25-year-old after her breakthrough French Open success in 2019 and Wimbledon last year, joining Serena Williams as the only active players to win majors on all three surfaces.
“It’s a dream come true for me and I’m just so proud to be an Aussie,” said Barty.
“It’s incredible, time and time again we’ve come so close and now to have my hands on such a beautiful trophy after an exceptional fortnight is just unbelievable.
“But for me it’s about the memories more than the trophies, it’s the memories we make from the whole journey,” she added.
“We (her team) often talk about it being this incredible journey, this great adventure. It’s about making those things happen along the way and really enjoying it.”
Barty achieved the feat with Christine O’Neil, the last Australian man or woman to win an Australian Open singles, watching in the stadium.
O’Neil won the title in 1978 and told reporters before the match: “I’m probably her (Barty’s) biggest fan. I’d be happy to hand it over to her because she’s so deserving of it.”
There were fears Barty might be overwhelmed by the weight of expectation, but the Australian has dealt with intense pressure before, none more so than at Wimbledon last year.
Winning at the All England Club was the one trophy she wanted more than any others, and she handled the occasion with aplomb.
She applied the same tactical acumen with the resurgent Collins, who has enjoyed a new lease of life after surgery last year for endometriosis left her pain free, storming to her first two WTA titles.
“Big congratulations to Ash on a formidable tournament, a formidable few years really,” said an emotional Collins, who is projected to break into the top 10 for the first time when the new rankings come out on Monday.
“The way you play and the variety of shots, hopefully I can implement some of that into my game.”
Barty countered the 28-year-old’s power-hitting and big serves with her dizzying array of slices, pinpoint serving, speed and a seamless forehand, but she had a major fright.
Both players comfortably held their early service games, offering few chances. But Collins’ heavy groundstrokes were causing problems for the top seed.
She worked the first deuce with Barty serving at 2-2 and a wayward forehand handed her the opening break point of the night. The Australian held firm and served out with an ace.
Barty stepped up a gear and put pressure on the Collins serve to earn her first break point with a net volley, and the American double faulted under pressure to go 4-2 behind.
With the crowd roaring her on, Barty raced home 6-3.
But Collins wasn’t done and came storming back, breaking Barty for 2-0 in the second set — only the second break of serve against the Australian in the tournament.
And while Barty made a statement by winning her next service game to love, the American was pumped and broke again for 5-1.
Barty was in deep trouble but incredibly found a way back, breaking for 2-5 with some crisp winners then breaking again for 4-5 as Collins floundered serving for the set for a second time.
It went to a tiebreak, where Barty was always in control as she carved out her own little piece of history.
“I think I just tried to get a lot more aggressive,” she said on facing a 5-1 deficit and the possibility of being taken to a third set for the first time in the tournament.
“Just from those couple of games from 5-1, I just wanted to try and get some momentum going and try and control the court a bit more.”
Daniil Medvedev won a tempestuous Australian Open semi-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday and will now face Rafael Nadal, bidding to become the all-time men’s Grand Slam leader, in Sunday’s final.
World number two Medvedev beat fourth-ranked Tsitsipas 7-6 (7/5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Earlier, the 35-year-old Spanish great powered past the Italian seventh seed Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 3-6.
World number two and title favourite Daniil Medvedev won over the Australian Open crowd on Saturday as he eased into the last 16 along with Stefanos Tsitsipas.
After the drama of Friday, when defending champion Naomi Osaka exited Melbourne in the third round, the women’s seeds were also mostly untroubled on day six.
Second seed Aryna Sabalenka overcame the serving yips and Simona Halep was an emphatic winner, the former number one now playing self-described “dinosaur” Alize Cornet on Monday for a place in the quarter-finals.
Russia’s Medvedev, the de facto men’s top seed after the deportation of defending champion Novak Djokovic on the eve of the Grand Slam, said some fans at Melbourne Park had a “low IQ” after they booed him in his second-round victory over Australian showman Nick Kyrgios.
The reigning US Open champion needed four sets and a large dose of composure to see off Kyrgios and silence Rod Laver Arena, but it was altogether more comfortable as he dismissed unseeded Dutchman Botic van de Zandschulp.
The 25-year-old Medvedev kept his cool in sweltering conditions on Margaret Court Arena to roll through 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in 1hr 55min and faces American Maxime Cressy in the fourth round.
“I’ll put it this way, it’s easier to play a guy from the Netherlands than a guy from Australia in Australia in Melbourne,” said Medvedev, who has a similar love-hate dynamic with the crowd in New York.
“Every good relationship must have its ups and downs so I think it’s good, it’s entertaining and it’s real, there is some relationship going on.”
Greek fourth seed Tsitsipas, who is chasing a maiden major, was also largely untroubled in a 6-3, 7-5, 6-7 (2/7), 6-4 win over unseeded Frenchman Benoit Paire and plays American Taylor Fritz next.
Tsitsipas’s serve was the foundation. He did not drop a service game despite losing a set and sent down 21 aces.
Medvedev and Tsitsipas, two of the generation coming up fast behind the “Big Three” of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, could meet in the semi-finals.
Felix Auger-Aliassime sent home the last Briton left standing in singles, the 21-year-old Canadian thrashing Dan Evans 6-4, 6-1, 6-1.
Auger-Aliassime is regarded as a serious upcoming talent in men’s tennis and warned his rivals that he was beginning to feel at home at the business end of majors.
“Now of course playing more and more Grand Slams and I have gone to semi-finals (US Open last year), I feel more in my place,” he said.
Another burgeoning talent, the 20-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner, defeated Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel in four sets and will play Australia’s Alex de Minaur.
‘What else can I ask for?’
In the women’s draw, Halep swatted aside Danka Kovinic — conqueror of US Open champion Emma Raducanu — 6-2, 6-1 in just 64 minutes to set up a date with Cornet of France.
The fit-again Halep came into the tournament full of confidence after her first title in 16 months earlier this month at a Melbourne warm-up event and was always in charge.
The 14th seed next meets unseeded Cornet, who celebrated her 32nd birthday by slugging it out with Slovenia’s 29th seed Tamara Zidansek for a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
The crowd serenaded her by singing happy birthday.
“It’s definitely a very, very special victory being back in the second week 13 years after my first (time). It’s quite special,” she said.
“The day of my birthday, I mean, what else can I ask for?”
World number two Sabalenka overcame the serving problems that have been plaguing her early season, but still needed three sets to get past 31st seed Marketa Vondrousova.
The Belarusian had served 70 double faults in her previous four matches in 2022, and tallied 10 more even as she beat the Czech 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.
She now meets unseeded Estonian veteran Kaia Kanepi.
Also safely into round four and looking ominous is seventh seed Iga Swiatek, who swatted aside 25th seed Daria Kasatkina, 6-2, 6-3.
The Australian Open was under growing pressure Thursday to make Covid tests mandatory after leading players questioned the seemingly lax policy and the Grand Slam got its first positive case.
Frenchman Ugo Humbert said following his first-round exit on Tuesday that he tested positive on his exit test to leave Australia and would isolate for a week.
Men’s third seed Alexander Zverev said in response that players were not getting tested, even as infection numbers surge in Australia, and believes that “quite a few players” are infected, without providing evidence.
Official attendees at Melbourne Park, such as tournament staff, are provided with rapid antigen tests each day and must be negative to remain on site.
Tennis Australia (TA), which organises the Australian Open, said players were encouraged to test themselves regularly but it was only mandatory if they had symptoms.
Zverev’s remarks threw another spotlight on Covid policies at the Australian Open, which were already under scrutiny following the saga of deported defending champion Novak Djokovic.
Women’s third seed Garbine Muguruza called testing for players an “optional thing”.
“Me, I test every two days by myself in my room. It’s not mandatory. I still do it,” she said.
Asked if players had to show test results when they arrived at Melbourne Park, the Spaniard added: “No, don’t have to.”
Fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas said he had been testing himself “from time to time”.
“It’s the responsibility of each and every athlete to test themselves regularly to see whether or not they are positive, which has been the case for me,” he said.
Under its “safe player” protocols, TA provides rapid antigen kits to players and testing clinics are open for extended hours on site, and at the player hotel.
All players at the Australian Open have to be vaccinated or have a medical exemption — a rule central to the deportation of the unvaccinated Djokovic.
Players also had to complete a mandatory PCR test when they landed in Australia and again between day five and seven, a timeframe that would now be over for most of them.
Andy Murray battled to his first win at the Australian Open since 2017 with an epic five-set victory over 21st seed Nikoloz Basilashvili on Tuesday.
The three-time Grand Slam champion, playing with a metal hip following career-saving surgery in 2019, wrestled with the Georgian for almost four hours before claiming his place in the second round.
Scotland’s Murray, ranked 113 and playing as a tournament wild card, showed his trademark fighting spirit to edge home in the gripping final set and clinch a 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, 6-7 (5/7), 6-4 victory in 3hr 52 min on John Cain Arena.
It was the 34-year-old’s first match at the Australian Open since 2019, when he went out in the first round. He made a tearful exit and it was thought that it might be his farewell. He had surgery on his hip weeks later.
“Amazing, been a tough three or four years. Put in a lot work to get back here,” a relieved Murray said on court Tuesday.
“I’ve played on this court many times and the atmosphere is incredible.
“It’s amazing to be back and winning a five-set battle like that, I couldn’t ask for any more.”
It continued a keen rivalry between the pair with Murray rallying from a set down to defeat the big-hitting Georgian last week in Sydney and also prevailing over four sets in the first round at Wimbledon last year. – Thundering groundstrokes –
Murray grabbed the opening set with the loss of just one game, but Basilashvili levelled it up with the second set, before trading blows with the wily Scot in the third.
Basilashvili was pounding his groundstrokes and Murray had to use all his guile to get the ball back in play and work for an opening.
Murray, a five-time finalist in Melbourne, had three set points at 5-3 but the Georgian fought them all off to cling on to his service.
Murray again worked his way to two more set points in his next service game as Basilashvili overhit a couple of volleys, before the Scot took the third set when the Georgian whacked a backhand wide.
Basilashvili broke Murray’s serve in the sixth game of the fourth set but the indomitable Scot fought back from 0-30 down to break back in the next game when the Georgian’s lob was long.
But Basilashvili would not go away and won a titanic tiebreaker to force the match into a fifth set.
The Georgian began the final set poorly, falling behind 0-40 on serve and netting a backhand to hand Murray a break.
But yet again Basilashvili refused to give in and broke back to level at 4-4.
Murray held serve and then got to 0-40 on Basilashvili’s service in the 10th game before taking the epic, to crowd pandemonium inside the arena.
Murray has lost Roger Federer once in the final of the Australian Open and four times to Novak Djokovic.
But Murray is a three-time Grand Slam champion, winning the 2012 US Open, and the following year he became the first British man to win the Wimbledon singles crown in 77 years. He won it again in 2016.
Rafael Nadal said “justice had spoken” Monday but that Novak Djokovic was not the only one to blame for the “mess” that overshadowed the Australian Open.
The Spanish great also said that he would have preferred it if his rival and defending champion Djokovic had been playing in the first Grand Slam of the year.
The Serbian world number one jetted out of Australia on the eve of the showpiece having lost a drawn-out legal battle to reinstate his visa after it was cancelled over his coronavirus vaccination status.
Djokovic won a first court case, but lost a decisive second one on Sunday, and Nadal said he was “tired” of talking about it.
“Almost one week ago when he won in the first instance, the case, he was able to get back his visa and was practising. I said the justice have spoke,” Nadal said after cruising into the Australian Open second round.
“If the justice says his visa is valid and he’s able to play here, the justice has spoken, so that’s the fairest thing, that he deserve to play here.
“Yesterday the justice said another thing. I will never be against what the justice says.”
Rafael Nadal opened his Australian Open campaign in storming style Monday as the first Grand Slam of the year finally began after a chaotic build-up dominated by the visa saga engulfing world number one Novak Djokovic.
Defending women’s champion Naomi Osaka breezed into the second round but teenager Coco Gauff was an early big name casualty, the American 17-year-old dumped out in straight sets by China’s Wang Qiang, who is ranked outside the top 100.
The only Australian Open champion in the men’s draw after nine-time winner Djokovic’s sensational deportation, Nadal started his quest to become the first male to win 21 Grand Slams by sweeping aside the 66th-ranked Marcos Giron 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.
There was relief from Nadal that they were at last playing tennis — he said he had grown “quite tired” of talking about his great Serbian rival, for whom he said he still has respect.
“The ideal situation in the world of sport is that the best players are on court, no?” said Nadal, who next plays Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann in the second round.
“Honestly I wish him all the best. I think the situation has been a mess. He’s not the only one that did probably the things bad.”
– Djokovic in Dubai –
Unvaccinated Serbian Djokovic landed in Dubai early on Monday after his humiliating deportation from Australia, his dreams of a record-extending 10th Australian Open title over for this year.
But it was business as usual for Japan’s Osaka, who registered her 23rd win in her last 24 matches in the city of Melbourne, with a 6-3, 6-3 win against Colombia’s Camila Osorio.
Seeded 13 after a disrupted 2021 season in which she said she had suffered “long bouts of depression”, Osaka raced to a 5-0 lead before cruising through in 68 minutes.
“I would say I feel more comfortable in my skin, if that makes sense,” said the 24-year-old, who won the title at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021. She will play American Madison Brengle in the second round.
“I just want to have fun, first of all. I can’t expect myself to win every match, but I do expect myself to have fun and challenge myself.”
Fourth seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, the reigning French Open champion, had little problem in blowing away Germany’s Andrea Petkovic 6-2, 6-0 in 67 minutes.
The highest-ranked player to lose in the first round so far was Britain’s 12th seed Cameron Norrie, easily beaten by American Sebastian Korda, the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda, 6-3, 6-0, 6-4.
– Jabeur withdraws –
Tunisian ninth seed Ons Jabeur did not even make it onto court.
She withdrew because of injury before her match against Spain’s Nuria Parrizas Diaz and was replaced by lucky loser Irina Bara of Romania.
Italian seventh seed Matteo Berrettini, who reached his first Slam final at Wimbledon last year before losing to Djokovic, dropped a set before powering past American Brandon Nakashima 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7/5), 6-3.
There were also four-set wins for Canadian 14th seed Denis Shapovalov and Polish 10th seed Hubert Hurkacz.
Miomir Kecmanovic, who was originally drawn to meet Djokovic, had a much easier time against “lucky loser” Salvatore Caruso, winning 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 in 1hr 56min.
Germany’s Tatjana Maria had the honour of striking the first serve in the tournament on the showpiece Rod Laver Arena before falling to Greece’s Maria Sakkari, the fifth seed, 6-4, 7-6 (7/2).
“We all know how hard first rounds can be and that wasn’t easy,” said the athletic Sakkari.
Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic said she was still feeling the effects of Covid-19 a month after falling ill, as she moved into round two by overcoming Kristina Mladenovic 6-4, 6-3.
“I mean, my pulse was getting very up in the practices,” she said.
The night session on Rod Laver Arena is headlined by world number one Ashleigh Barty, who is chasing her first title in her home Grand Slam. The 25-year-old faces Ukrainian qualifier Lesia Tsurenko.
Later third seed and Olympic champion Alexander Zverev plays fellow German Daniel Altmaier.
Novak Djokovic had put the Australian Open at risk and made other tennis players “look like fools” after travelling to Australia unvaccinated, world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas said Thursday.
The Serbian world number one, top seed and defending champion is looking to secure a 10th Australian Open title at Melbourne Park — it gets underway next Monday — and an unprecedented 21st Grand Slam crown.
But the vaccine-sceptic’s fate remains uncertain with Australia’s government pondering whether to revoke his visa again and throw him out of the country for breaking Covid protocols.
Novak Djokovic drew a first-round clash against a fellow Serb in the Australian Open on Thursday, taking a step closer to his dream of a record 21st Grand Slam despite a looming decision on his deportation.
The unvaccinated world number one, top seed and defending champion is looking to clinch a 10th title at Melbourne Park.
The 34-year-old tennis superstar was drawn to play Serb Miomir Kecmanovic in the first round.
But the openly vaccine-skeptic Djokovic’s championship hopes were in peril as Australia’s Immigration Minister Alex Hawke pondered whether to revoke his visa for a second time and throw him out of the country.
Hawke is considering using his powers to annul the visa, his spokesman has said, although “lengthy further submissions” from Djokovic’s legal team have delayed a decision.
In a lengthy press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said no decision had yet been taken.
Djokovic flew into Melbourne airport on January 5 carrying a vaccine exemption because of a claimed positive PCR test result on December 16.
Border agents rejected his exemption, saying a recent infection was an insufficient justification, tore up his visa and placed him in a detention centre.
But Djokovic’s high-powered legal team overturned the visa decision in court on Monday on a procedural matter related to his airport interview.
Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper quoted an unnamed government source as saying that allowing Djokovic to stay in Australia without a Covid-19 vaccine would set a dangerous precedent.
The source was quoted as saying Morrison’s government was expected to act despite any international “backlash” because cancelling the visa would be line with Australia’s efforts to control the fast-spreading virus.
– ‘Drift on and on’ –
The government’s legal battle with Djokovic is politically charged in a country that has endured nearly two years of some of the toughest Covid-19 restrictions in the world, and in the run-up to May general elections.
“Australia has a policy of not allowing unvaccinated people into Australia. It is beyond my comprehension how we have got to this point,” Labor Party opposition leader Anthony Albanese said in an interview Thursday.
“How is it that Novak Djokovic was able to come here?”
As Covid-related hospitalisations rise in Melbourne, the Victorian state government said Thursday it would cap capacity at the Australian Open at 50 percent.
Spectators must be vaccinated or have a medical exemption.
Face masks will also be mandatory at the opening Grand Slam of the year except when eating or drinking, and those watching must socially distance while indoors.
The tournament starts Monday.
As the Omicron variant races through Australia’s population, Djokovic’s anti-vaccine stance has come under scrutiny.
The tennis ace described reports about his post-infection outings in Serbia as “misinformation” in an Instagram post-Wednesday.
On the day of his claimed positive test in Serbia, he appeared at a ceremony to honour him with stamps bearing his image. The following day he attended a youth tennis event. He appeared at both apparently without a mask.
Djokovic said he only received the PCR test result after attending the children’s tennis event on December 17.
But he admitted that he also went ahead with an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe on December 18.
– ‘Error of judgement’ –
“On reflection, this was an error of judgement and I accept that I should have rescheduled this commitment,” Djokovic said.
The journalist who carried out the L’Equipe interview, Franck Ramella, said Djokovic’s representatives had told him not to ask about Covid-19 vaccinations.
The reporter said he had been unaware at the time of the interview that Djokovic was Covid-positive.
The tennis star also admitted to a mistake on his Australian travel declaration, in which a box was ticked indicating that he had not, or would not, travel in the 14 days before flying to Melbourne.
In fact, social media posts and reports show he flew from Serbia to Spain during that period.
Djokovic blamed his support team for this.
“My agent sincerely apologises for the administrative mistake in ticking the incorrect box about my previous travel before coming to Australia,” he said.
Leading immigration lawyer Christopher Levingston said the immigration minister could cancel Djokovic’s visa because the travel declaration was incorrectly completed.
But the minister may also act if he believes Djokovic may flout Australian public health orders, based on his failure to self-isolate in Serbia, he said.
Various options to appeal would be open for both Djokovic and the government, but at the end of the day, the immigration minister can exercise his personal power to cancel the visa, the lawyer said.