MELBOURNE – To some, it seemed a cloud had been lifted from the Australian Open. To others, Novak Djokovic still was almost palpably present, the name on everyone's lips on the opening day of the first major tennis tournament of the year.
Djokovic left Australia late Sunday when he failed in his legal challenge to overturn the cancellation of his visa due to his lack of a COVID-19 vaccination. His flight from Melbourne was touching down in Dubai early Monday just as the first matches of the tournament began.
As the No. 1-ranked male player and the three-time defending champion, Djokovic would have been the marquee attraction of the tournament. In absentia, he still exercised an outsized influence on opening day.
Miomir Kecmanovic, who was due to play Djokovic in the first round on Monday but instead faced Salvatore Caruso of Italy, dedicated his 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 win to his fellow Serb.
He said Djokovic had been treated unjustly by politicians.
When Dusan Lajovic beat Marton Fucsovics of Hungary in a tight five-setter, a Serbian fan immediately tweeted “Dusan Lajovic has avenged his Serbian brother by eliminating Martin Fucsovics.”
Fucsovics had angered Djokovic’s supporters before the tournament when he was quoted in the media criticizing Djokovic’s unvaccinated status and decision to travel to Australia.
Djokovic received an exemption from to vaccination rules to play in the Australian Open, based on a coronavirus infection in mid-December. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him — sparking an 11-day legal battle and an ongoing political drama.
After his win at Melbourne Park, Lajovic displayed a Serbian flag emblazoned with Djokovic’s image and the words “like it or not, The Greatest of All Time.”
Lajovic said denying Djokovic the opportunity to defend his Australian Open title would only make Djokovic more determined to become the best ever tennis player.
“I think the way they treated him was terribly wrong. I think the decision itself was terribly wrong, and also the reason why they did it is also for me terribly wrong,” Lajovic sid. “I hope that in the future he will be the best tennis player in history, and that this will be only looked at as a setback on his path.”
Coach and analyst Darren Cahill told Australian television “the players are relieved” that Djokovic’s departure focused attention on tennis.
The former coach of world No. 1's Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Simona Halep told the Nine Network “there has been a cloud hanging over the players."
“I hated the exemption that he had because I think that exemption is really for people who want to get vaccinated and can’t get vaccinated because they have contracted COVID in the last three or six months, and Novak never wanted to get vaccinated,” Cahill said.
Australian federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg rejected the assertion of Serbia President Alexander Vucic that Djokovic was mentally and physically mistreated in Australia.
“I make no apologies for the application of the rules here in Australia around our border protection policies that have helped keep us safe,” Frydenberg said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re the No. 1 tennis player in the world or Betty from Utah, if you’re unvaccinated, the same rules apply."
Around 50 people gathered for a peaceful rally outside the Melbourne Park complex late Monday in the shadows of Rod Laver Arena, protesting Djokovic's deportation.
One of the activists held a hand-painted banner saying that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison should be ashamed of the decision. Another proudly displayed a banner that read “Deport the Australian (government) for inciting international scorn and ridicule on this nation.”
Opinion remained divided worldwide on whether Djokovic should have been allowed to compete in the Australian Open despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19.
Djokovic has overwhelming support from his home country of Serbia, whose president said Australia embarrassed itself. He has also been held up as a hero by some in the anti-vaccine movement.
Others were quick to criticize. One of Italy’s greatest tennis players, Adriano Panatta, called Djokovic’s expulsion from Australia “the most natural epilogue of this affair.”
French tennis player Alize Cornet expressed sympathy while reserving judgment.
“I know too little to judge the situation,” she posted on Twitter. “What I know is that Novak is always the first one to stand up for the players. But none of us stood for him. Be strong.”
It's not clear where Djokovic will play next, and he is the defending champion at the next scheduled major, the French Open in May-June.
A member of the French Parliament said a new law that will exclude unvaccinated people from sports venues, restaurants and other public places will apply to anyone who wants to play in the French Open.
The comments Monday from Christophe Castaner, a former member of President Emmanuel Macron’s government, and a tweet from the sports minister late Sunday marked a reversal from prior plans to create a “bubble” around the French Open, scheduled for late May into June.
“Mr. Djokovic has no business playing if he doesn’t respect a rule that applies to spectators, ball collectors, to the professional who will work in boutiques at Roland-Garros,” Castaner told BFM television.
Sports minister Roxana Maracineanu said in a tweet the law will apply to French citizens and foreigners alike. But she said sports officials “will work together to preserve the competitions and make ourselves the ambassadors of these measures at the international level.”
Djokovic is also the defending champion at Wimbledon. England has allowed exemptions from various coronavirus regulations for visiting athletes, if they remain at their accommodation when not competing or training. The U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open, has said it will follow government rules on vaccination status.
Perhaps there is only one thing everyone can agree on. As three-time major winner Andy Murray put it: “The situation has not been good all round for anyone.”
Former NBA star Yao Ming said Monday that it is unfortunate Djokovic won’t be playing at the Australian Open.
“Speaking as a former athlete, I think it’s a pity for a player to lose such an opportunity and for the spectators to lose an opportunity to enjoy watching the player,” he said at a news conference in Beijing on the Winter Olympics, which open in China’s capital in 18 days.
He added that he is not familiar with Australia’s pandemic measures. “I’m not in a position to comment if he did right or wrong."
Ming, who retired in 2012 and is now president of the Chinese Basketball Association, noted that two top Chinese players play in the Australian league and must follow local pandemic rules.
McMorran reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.