The supportive signs and dozens of Serbian flags and loud chants of Novak Djokovic’s nickname filled Rod Laver Arena, providing a warm welcome marking his return to the Australian Open — a tournament he has dominated in the past but one he could not enter a year ago.
Djokovic acknowledged the greeting with a quick wave of his left hand when he stepped out onto the court at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, then got down to business by playing quite well and only briefly showing a hint of trouble from the balky left hamstring that was heavily taped.
With his parents and brother in the stands at Melbourne Park for the first time since he won his first Grand Slam title there 15 years ago, Djokovic began the first-round match with an ace at 125 mph (201 kph). He held at love there, took control of that set with a 12-point run and was on his way to a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 victory over 75th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena that finished after midnight.
“Unbelievable atmosphere. Thank you so much for staying this late, everybody. Also, thank you for giving me such a welcoming and a reception I can only dream of,” Djokovic told the crowd in an on-court interview. “I really feel very happy that I’m back in Australia and I’m back here on the court where I had the biggest success in my career.”
Djokovic’s participation is one of the chief story lines, perhaps the MAIN one, of the first Grand Slam tournament of 2023. That’s because Djokovic never got to play a point last season at the site of nine of his major championships, because his visa was blocked and he was deported from Australia after a legal saga tied to his lack of any vaccination for COVID-19.
He never did get the shots and also missed the U.S. Open because of it. But Australia’s government has since relaxed coronavirus-related restrictions, allowing Djokovic to come to the country, and also waived a rule that could have stopped him from getting in for three years following a visa revocation. He has insisted that whole episode in January 2022 deeply affected him but that he does not hold a grudge; there certainly did not seem to be any hard feelings toward him Tuesday.
Spectators who politely applauded Carballes Baena when he entered the stadium stood and roared for the 35-year-old Djokovic. A sing-song, soccer-style chant of “Olé, olé, olé, olé!” followed by the…