MELBOURNE, Australia ( Associated Press) — Just stay tuned.
It’s hard to believe any story for any Grand Slam tournament, twists and turns are involved and shows no sign of allowing any real tennis to get the attention it deserves: defending champion Novak Djokovic to play in Australian Hoping that the COVID-19 vaccine is open despite not having it.
The latest holdup has to do with an anticipated decision from the country’s immigration minister on Djokovic’s back-and-forth situation. Yet it can go back to a court – of the legal kind, naturally.
“Medical exemption” and “inoculation” and “visa” have dominated the Melbourne Park-related conversation as the first Grand Slam tournament of the year begins on Monday (Sunday in the US). As of Thursday night, there was still no resolution, although Djokovic was named at the top of the men’s section, retaining his No. 1 seed, as Miomir Kekmanovic faced another Serbian, Miomir Kekmanovic, in the first round.
If Djokovic is allowed to play, of course.
Normally, his placement as Rafael Nadal in the half of the draw – both players vying for a 21st major title, breaking the record he shared with Roger Federer – would make headlines.
A potential semifinal between the game’s two greats would have attracted as much attention as a potential fourth-round contest between top-ranked Ash Barty and defending champion Naomi Osaka in the women’s draw.
But tennis matches have been of secondary interest since Djokovic flew to Melbourne Just before midnight on January 5.
After being confined to an immigration detention hotel for four nights following an exemption from Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination rules, Djokovic won a court battle on procedural grounds on Monday, allowing him to stay and play.
Since then, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has been considering whether to revoke the visa. A decision is about to come.
Djokovic’s court documents say he tested positive for the coronavirus last month, on grounds that he and the Australian Open organizers thought everyone would qualify for an exemption from vaccination rules.
The federal government disagreed.
While he awaited the final call, Djokovic was practicing at the Rod Laver Arena to overcome the feeling of imprisonment.
Nadal warmed up with a title at a tuneup tournament in Melbourne last week, where he said Djokovic could have avoided all the drama with two shots of an approved vaccine.
At a sponsor’s event at Melbourne Park on Thursday, Nadal covered his return from an extended layoff and his comments about the difficulties he has faced during the pandemic.
“Challenging times like the last six months are mentally tough, and especially later in your career,” he said. “But I still have passion and love for what I’m doing.”
Asked again about Djokovic’s condition, Nadal smiled and replied: “Sorry, I have to go and practice.”
It has become a bit off topic. Australian Open tournament director Craig Tilly declined to answer questions about that sponsorship program and Djokovic in the draw.
Andy Murray, whose association with Djokovic dates back to his days as a junior, won his first match in Australia in more than 1,000 days when he was asked about the visa saga this week.
“This is where situations like these are frustrating for players, because I want to come out and talk about my tennis, not talk about situations like that,” Murray said. “I hope we can move on from this now.”
Djokovic’s anti-vaccine stance makes him a polarizing figure in a country where coronavirus cases are on the rise despite more than 90% of the eligible population being vaccinated for COVID-19, and in a city where residents have fought the pandemic. Spent more than 260 days in lockdown during ,
Djokovic missed out on his 21st major after losing to Daniil Medvedev in the final of the US Open last year.
Medvedev, who also ended Djokovic’s run at the calendar-year Grand Slam, is seeded No. 2 in Australia.
The 2021 Australian Open runners-up have local favorites Nick Kyrgios, No. 5 Andrey Rublev, No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliasim and John Isner in the quarters of the draw and could meet No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-finals.
After ending in a tough stretch, either Barty or Osaka can’t make it that far, which gives their fourth-round match the feel of a final.
The winner can meet No. 5 Maria Sakkari or No. 9 Ons Jabur in the quarterfinals.
French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova is also in equal parts of a draw with 2020 champions Sofia Kenin and Coco Gauff.
Second seed Aryna Sabalenka, No. 3 Garbine Muguruza, two-time major winner Simona Halep and US Open champion Emma Radukanu, who opens against 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens, are on the opposite half of the draw.
Barty, desperate for an end to the Australian women’s Australian Open title drought that stretched to 1978, won the Adelaide International last weekend before skipping the Sydney tournament and heading straight to Melbourne.
1-ranked Osaka is coming back relatively fresh in 2021 after taking a pair of mental health breaks.
After winning last year’s Australian Open for her fourth Grand Slam title, she withdrew before the second round of the French Open and skipped Wimbledon. After taking another hiatus after the US Open, she slipped down the rankings and was seeded 13th.
“To be honest, I still won a Slam last year, so I don’t mind it so much,” Osaka said. “I feel like whenever I come here, or come back here at the beginning of the year, it’s like a breath of fresh air.”
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