MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was out of the frame, but the Australian Open nonetheless began under dark clouds Monday amid a wave of coronavirus cases, an overcast sky and the absence of perhaps its biggest star.
“I think we can say goodbye to these clouds, they are finally dissipating,” Larry Larkins optimistically told passersby. “It’s going to be a lovely day of tennis for all.”
Not quite all.
Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked men’s tennis player, had been unceremoniously deported 12 hours earlier after a trio of federal judges upheld the Australian immigration minister’s decision to cancel the unvaccinated athlete’s visa. As he walked through the departure gate, his fellow passengers broke into applause, according to one person on the flight. With Djokovic potentially banned from Australia for three years, it just might have been the last applause he’ll get Down Under.
Djokovic arrived in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, on Monday, according to Serbian news agencies. Images of Djokovic disembarking at the airport shortly after midday were shared on social media.
Now, the tournament Djokovic had been favored to win for a 10th time was finally underway without him.
But the shadow of the scandal hung over the championship, like the rain clouds that loomed over the courts. And even if the Novak noise was gone, another invisible issue remained. Australia had deported Djokovic, but the omicron remained.
After largely escaping the coronavirus for the first 18 months of the pandemic, Australia is now in its grip. With an average of roughly 100,000 new cases a day, the country is in the midst of one of the sharpest spikes per capita in the world. The surge in infections — almost all of them omicron — has led to supermarket shortages, testing issues and canceled vaccination appointments.
For Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the arrival of an uber-rich foreigner with a suspect medical exemption to Australia’s strict vaccination entry requirements proved a useful distraction for a politician who has been struggling in the polls ahead of an election later this year.
At Melbourne Park on Monday, however, Djokovic’s absence and the virus’s omnipresence proved to be a double whammy driving down attendance. Victoria state officials ordered ticket sales capped at 50 percent of capacity.
Uncertainty over the Serb’s involvement had reportedly led to refunds outstripping ticket sales. And the fans who did show up immediately noticed a different atmosphere than in tournaments of old (apart from last year, when covid-19 forced fans out of some matches).
“It’s very quiet for the first day,” said Andrew Vize, 53, as he drank coffee with his mother shortly before the first match of the tournament. He wasn’t expecting to be here. But then his niece had joined the ranks of the roughly 700,000 people in Australia who currently have the coronavirus.
“I think we all expected it would come in,” Vize said of the omicron variant now running rampant Down Under. “But we didn’t think it would be so, vroom! Hard and quick.”
Like the majority of people in this law-abiding country, Vize had little sympathy for the superstar scofflaw but also believed Australia’s government had tried to exploit the situation, only to make a mess of it.
“We’re just such a sports-mad city,” he said of Melbourne. “We’ll forget about it halfway through the week, and it’ll all be about the tennis.”
“I feel sorry for him, but rules are rules,” added another Melburnian, Jo Matheson, 57.
Nearby, two young men unfurled a Serbian flag with Djokovic’s face and the word GOAT, short for “Greatest of all time,” as their friend snapped a photo.
The three Serbian-Australians had bought tickets hoping to see Djokovic. They had thought about boycotting the Open after his deportation but instead decided to support the remaining Serbian players.
“It won’t be the same this year,” said Garina Carovic, 20, dressed in the jersey of a Serbian soccer team. “He’s like family to us.”
“The minister admitted that his visa was correct. Now they are trying to say he’s an anti-vaxxer,” scoffed Febo Farovic, also 20. “The government is trying to distract people from the fact that there are no rapid tests. They are using him as a scapegoat.”
“Djoko!” shouted a passerby wearing a Djokovic T-shirt, giving Carovic a fist bump.
But the sea of Serbs who normally attend the tournament in support of Djokovic appeared to have mostly stayed away this year. John Cain Arena was almost empty, with only one Serbian flag in sight when Laslo Djere lost his match.
Vinodkumar Kaliyanthil had planned to spend more than $500 on a few days’ worth of tickets for himself and his son in the hope they could see the boy’s favorite player. But when Djokovic was deported, Kaliyanthil scaled back their plans.
“I feel bad,” said 10-year-old Parthiv, as he carried an oversized tennis ball signed by two other players. Djokovic’s signature would have to wait.
“It’s a big disappointment for tennis fans,” Kaliyanthil said.
Instead, father and son went to see Djokovic’s rival, Rafael Nadal, cruise to victory as he tries to surpass the Serb and win a record 21st Grand Slam title.
But as the day wore on, the sun began to break through the clouds and the squeaks of hard-court tennis began to be drowned out as the crowds came alive.
The loudest cheers came from Court 3, where unseeded Australian Aleksandar Vukic was roaring back from one set down against favored South African Lloyd Harris.
“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi,” the crowd chanted as Vukic climbed his way back into the match. When the 25-year-old won the decisive tiebreaker, he dropped his racket and raised his hands to his face in disbelief.
Djokovic had been deported. Omicron was everywhere.
But the game goes on.
Robyn Dixon in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.