Djokovic welcomed back to Australian Open

Serbian flags waved and Rod Laver Arena rose to give Novak Djokovic a rapturous welcome back to the Australian Open on Tuesday, a year after he was kicked out of the country.

Novak Djokovic said he felt “very much appreciated” as he made a perfect return to the Australian Open with a ruthless victory over Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena on Tuesday.

The Serb enjoyed a rousing reception at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne following his deportation a year ago as he launched his bid for a 10th Australian Open title in style.

The 35-year-old, who missed last year’s Grand Slam because of his stance on Covid vaccines, showed few signs of the hamstring niggle he picked up in Adelaide this month as he raced to an emphatic 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 win.

There were concerns over how the former number one might be received by fans at Melbourne Park following the deportation saga 12 months ago.

The city endured lengthy lockdowns during the height of the pandemic.

But, as in Adelaide, the fourth seed walked out to loud cheers and chants of “Nole”, with vocal backing during the match from a stadium awash with Serbian flags.

“Thank you for giving me such a welcoming reception that I could only dream of,” said Djokovic, who is chasing a record-equalling 22nd major title.

“I feel really happy that I’m back here in Australia and on the court where I have had the biggest success in my career.

“Definitely this court is the most special court in my life and I couldn’t ask for a better start to the tournament.”

He arrived at Melbourne Park in sizzling form after ending 2022 by winning another ATP Finals title, then followed that up by triumphing at the Adelaide International.

As if that wasn’t daunting enough for 75th-ranked Carballes Baena, Djokovic came into the clash having won his last 21 Australian Open matches.

He opened with an ace, but didn’t have it all his own way at first, needing to save three break points in the fifth game.

But he quickly settled and broke the next game to love for a 4-2 lead and closed out the set.

His hamstring appeared to trouble him briefly when he slid for a shot at 2-2 in the next set, but he pressed on and broke again for 4-3 when Carballes Baena netted a forehand.

Djokovic stepped up a level as the clock ticked passed midnight in Melbourne and he immediately broke in the third set, with the Spaniard out of answers as the former world number one surged to victory.

Asked afterwards about the welcome he was given, Djokovic said: “Very much appreciated. I felt very welcome on the court, especially the Serbian community that is big here in Australia has welcomed me in an incredible way.

“So much support. So much love. I could not ask for a better start of the tournament in terms of support, in terms of how I felt on the court and also playing.”

He will play Bolivian Hugo Dellien or French qualifier Enzo Couacaud in the second round.

– ‘Really glad’ –

In Djokovic’s absence last year, long-time rival Rafael Nadal won the title to claim a 21st Grand Slam which he stretched to 22 at the French Open.

Djokovic won Wimbledon to take his haul to 21 and he has made no secret about wanting more.

He said the left hamstring problem which has been bothering him for more than a week had been of no real concern.

“The leg is good. It’s not ideal, but it’s getting there. Today was a really good test,” he said.

“Haven’t had too much training in the last few days, to be honest with you, tennis-wise.

“I’m actually really glad that it felt better as the match progressed. The third set was great. That’s a good signal, a good sign.”

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