2023 Australian Open preview: Novak Djokovic is back


MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic had just wrapped up last season by winning the ATP Finals for a record sixth time when, rather than looking ahead to 2023, his mind immediately went back to the way 2022 began: He was unable to compete in last year’s Australian Open after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

That whole episode, and the decision to eschew the shots required for entry elsewhere, too, helped define his season and, perhaps to some, his legacy. So as he reflected on his triumph at the year-ending championships in Italy last November, Djokovic viewed it through the prism of what occurred in Australia last January.

“It feels deeply satisfying and, at the same time, huge relief, because of the circumstances that I have been through this year – situations earlier this year, of course, with Australia. … That had an effect, obviously, on my start of the year,” the 35-year-old from Serbia said. “For the first several months, I was trying to find that balance, game-wise but also mentally, in order to be able to come back to the court and find that tennis level that I need.”

When the new Grand Slam season begins at the Australian Open on Monday (Sunday, 4 p.m. PT), Djokovic will be back. Back in Australia – despite never getting inoculated against the coronavirus – thanks to government decisions to remove any vaccination requirements for visitors and to waive what could have been three-year ban for him as someone whose visa had been revoked. Back at a tournament he has dominated like no other, resulting in nine of his 21 major trophies, including the past three times he played there.

Back in position to strive for elite status and to challenge his great rival Rafael Nadal for supremacy in the Grand Slam title chase. Sure, it is Nadal who is the defending champion and who owns a men’s-record 22 majors. It is Djokovic, though, who will draw the most attention. And it is Djokovic who will be viewed as the favorite – and would have been, even had he not started off his trip to Australia by winning a tuneup title at Adelaide.

The lead-up to this Australian Open has been filled with talk about who will not be there: Serena Williams and Roger Federer ended their playing careers in 2022, as did Ash Barty; top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz, former Australian Open finalist Marin Cilic and seven-time major champion Venus Williams are injured; former No. 1 and four-time Slam winner Naomi Osaka last played a completed match in August and announced on social media on Wednesday that she is pregnant and will be taking the year off. Another former top-ranked player, Simona Halep, is serving a provisional doping suspension.

Once play begins, the talk will squarely be about Djokovic, and most folks in the sport seem to agree he should be back in the field.

Nadal, for one, called it “good for tennis.”

“It’s nice to see cooler heads prevailing there, (after) politics got in the way,” former U.S. Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish said.

Frances Tiafoe, an American who reached the U.S. Open semifinals, said: “We want the biggest players playing in the biggest tournaments in the world, regardless of everything else. We’re trying to sell a product at the end of the day, and you want those big names at the big events.”

One measure of how much things have changed, even as the coronavirus remains a part of daily life around the world: For the first time since 2020, players at the Australian Open will not need to self-report if they test positive for COVID-19; tournament director Craig Tiley said they’re simply being encouraged to stay away if they are sick.

Djokovic’s legal saga created plenty of drama – and drew plenty of public expression of opinions, whether from those pleased he wasn’t allowed into the country or those protesting the outcome – a year ago, but the response to his return has been rather muted so far, with little fuss or fanfare.

“Everybody was very welcoming” upon his arrival, Djokovic said, declaring more than once: “I don’t hold a grudge.”

So what if he hasn’t won a Grand Slam match played on a hard court since 2021? (He was not at the U.S. Open because he couldn’t enter the United States as an unvaccinated foreigner, a policy that was recently extended, meaning Djokovic might be unable to enter the tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami again.)

So what if he is “only” ranked No. 5?

“In my mind, I always see myself as the best player in the world, of course. I have that kind of mentality and that kind of approach,” Djokovic said, “regardless of who is across the net, regardless of what the surface is, regardless of what season it is.”


Nadal and Djokovic are their sport’s two most prominent active figures; no one else is even close. Both are in their mid-30s; no one knows how much longer they’ll be at the top of the game.

For all that the long-time rivals have in common, Nadal and Djokovic could hardly be entering this tournament under more contrasting circumstances.

Nadal, of course, is the defending champion at Melbourne Park – thanks to a comeback from two sets down in last year’s final, which he called “one of the most emotional victories of my tennis career” – but he also is mired in about as bad a stretch as he’s ever experienced: 0-2 so far in 2023 and having won just one of his past seven matches dating to the end of last season.

Djokovic, who began this trip with a tuneup title in Adelaide, has won 30 of his past 31 tournament contests dating to the end of last season.

“He’s still got it,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, the runner-up to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open and seeded No. 3 in Melbourne. “He can still play.”

Asked at a pre-tournament news conference Saturday whether he feels vulnerable, Nadal did not try to hide a thing.

“Yeah. Without a doubt,” replied the 36-year-old from Spain, whose 2022 was littered with health concerns that included chronic pain in his left foot, damaged rib cartilage and a torn abdominal muscle. “I have been losing more than usual. … I need to live with it and just fight for the victories.”

Looking ahead to his upcoming encounter in Rod Laver Arena against Jack Draper, a fellow left-hander who is a 21-year-old from England ranked 40th, Nadal said: “I think I’m prepared to play well. We’ll see Monday if I’m prepared to win.”

As for his assessment of Djokovic’s form, Nadal offered this: “He ended last year well, and he started this year well.”

Sure did. None of which matters to Djokovic as much as another Grand Slam title would. Win a 10th Australian Open championship in two weeks, and Djokovic can pull even with Nadal.

“I mean, that’s why I keep on playing professional tennis, (competitive) tennis, because I want to be the best. I want to win the biggest tournaments in the world. There is no secret about it,” said Djokovic, who will open on Tuesday night (late Monday PT) against the 75th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena, whose resume contains exactly one match win in Melbourne.

“It doesn’t get bigger than this. You have four Slams that historically have been the biggest events in our sport,” Djokovic said. “It’s also one of the biggest reasons why I was really looking forward to come back to Australia: because of my record here.”

He’s been pleased by the greetings he’s received from spectators in Adelaide and Melbourne, where he played an exhibition match at Rod Laver Arena on Friday with Nick Kyrgios – the man Djokovic beat in the Wimbledon final last July.

“I didn’t know how that’s going to go like, after the events of last year,” Djokovic said. “I’m very grateful for the kind of energy and reception, love and support I got last night.”

As for the way other players have greeted him, Djokovic said: “Well, I have not really been asking around: ‘What do you guys think of me coming back here?’ The ones I spoke to have been really supportive. No one has yet been negative on my return.”

Since arriving in Australia, Djokovic has frequently mentioned that he doesn’t hold a grudge over being kicked out of the country in 2022 and said Saturday: “Probably, if I’m not able to move on, I wouldn’t be here.”

He is, though. And while he’s been dealing with a tweaked hamstring he picked up in Adelaide, Djokovic looked just fine physically against Kyrgios.

“I like my chances,” Djokovic said. “I always like my chances.”


As well as everything is going so far for Iga Swiatek – the No. 1 ranking; three Grand Slam titles overall; a tour-high eight trophies and a 37-match winning streak in 2022 – the 21-year-old from Poland is always looking to improve.

One aspect she is striving to change at the moment? Being less tough on herself.

“I’m always going to have this part of me that is a perfectionist. When I’m not feeling comfortable on court, it’s kind of hard to not be harsh,” Swiatek said at Melbourne Park, where she is the top-seeded woman for the Australian Open and scheduled to play Jule Niemeier in Rod Laver Arena as the tournament gets started.

“On the other hand, the most important thing is kind of to find this balance that, on court, for sure I want to get better and better,” Swiatek continued, “but off the court, the things that happen on the practice day don’t have to influence my whole day and my whole mood.”

A year ago, Swiatek reached the Australian Open semifinals for the first time.

“We care so much and we give ourselves to this sport, that it’s sometimes tough to find this balance” between pushing oneself and easing up, Swiatek said. “But I’m getting better at it, for sure.”

She has won two of the past three major championships – at the French Open in June, then the U.S. Open in September, when she needed three sets to come back and beat Niemeier in the fourth round.

Niemeier, a 23-year-old from Germany currently ranked 69th, has made only three Grand Slam appearances, but those include a quarterfinal run at Wimbledon in July.


Another opening-round highlight has five-time Australian Open finalist Andy Murray against Italian Matteo Berrettini, a former Wimbledon finalist who is the No. 13-seeded player.

Murray defeated Australian Alex de Minaur, 6-3, 6-3, in an exhibition match on Thursday and is pleased with his form.

“It is always difficult in exhibition matches to play like it is the first round of a Grand Slam but I wanted to try to leave everything out on the court to give my body the best preparation, to see how I was moving, to see how I was serving, and it went well,” Murray said.

The potential men’s quarterfinals by seeding are: Nadal vs. No. 7 Daniil Medvedev in what would be a rematch of last year’s final at Melbourne Park, and No. 3 Tsitsipas vs. No. 6 Felix Auger-Aliassime in the top half; and Djokovic vs. No. 5 Andrey Rublev, and No. 2 Casper Ruud vs. No. 8 Taylor Fritz in the bottom half.

Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios, who faces Roman Safiullin in the opening round, is seeded 19th.

“I am one of the best players in the world, so I am definitely going to go into the Australian Open and any Grand Slam with confidence,” Kyrgios said.

Ons Jabeur, who reached both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open women’s finals in 2022, is seeded second and opens against Tamara Zidansek.

No. 3 Jessica Pegula, who led the U.S. team that claimed the mixed teams United Cup in Sydney last week, faces Jacqueline Cristian from Romania in the first round.

Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup captain Alicia Molik, who attended the draw at Melbourne Park, said Pegula is a contender.

“I feel like she has the mental fortitude and I really feel like she can be here late in the stage of the Australian Open,” Molik said.

Seventh-seeded Coco Gauff, who won a tournament in Auckland last week, faces a tough first-round test against Katerina Siniakova, who defeated her in the Billie Jean King Cup final in November.

The potential women’s quarterfinals are: Swiatek vs. Gauff in what would be a rematch of last year’s French Open final, won by Swiatek, and Pegula vs. No. 6 Maria Sakkari in the top half of the bracket; and Jabeur vs. No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka, and No. 4 Caroline Garcia vs. No. 8 Daria Kasatkina in the bottom half.

Another big first-round match is two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka against Sofia Kenin, who won the title at Melbourne Park in 2020.

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