Tennis: Djokovic eager for Dubai comeback after Covid-19 vaccine controversy

Tennis star Novak Djokovic looks on during a visit to the Serbian pavillion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, on Feb 17, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI (AFP) - World number one Novak Djokovic said on Thursday (Feb 17) he has missed playing tennis as he prepares for his comeback in Dubai after the coronavirus vaccine row that kept him from defending his Australian Open title.

The Serb, who was deported from Australia over his vaccination status, toured the Serbian pavilion at Dubai Expo, removing his black mask when requested and writing a message in the visitors' book.

The 20-time Grand Slam-winner, who will play the ATP Dubai tournament next week, has kept a low profile since his deportation from Australia last month over his refusal to get jabbed.

"I am excited to go back and play on Monday," he told media at Expo. "I miss tennis after all that has happened."

Spanish rival Rafael Nadal won the Australian Open to become the first man to win 21 major titles, one ahead of Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Djokovic, a nine-time winner in Melbourne, had looked poised to grab the record before Australian officials refused to recognise his medical exemption to play, and deported him.

The legal tussle made headlines around the world as government efforts to bring coronavirus under control collide with the anti-vax movement.

This week, Djokovic told the BBC he was not anti-vaccination but that he was prepared to miss more major tournaments rather than take the coronavirus inoculation.

"Yes, that is the price that I'm willing to pay," he said.

"I was prepared not to go to Australia. I understand not being vaccinated today, I am unable to travel to most of the tournaments at the moment," Djokovic added.

Belated season start

Djokovic will play his first match of the season in Dubai, where he is a five-time winner. The event also features Britain's Andy Murray, who has three major titles to his name.

A coronavirus vaccine is not a requirement to enter the United Arab Emirates, which announced 895 new cases on Thursday.

Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic (centre) visits the Serbian pavillion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, on Feb 17, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

His path to playing at the French Open and Wimbledon has appeared to clear in recent days after Britain relaxed Covid-19 entry rules and France also signalled an easing of restrictions.

The most problematic tournament for Djokovic at the moment is the US Open, where a vaccination certificate is required.

There are also two high-profile tournaments coming up in the US - Indian Wells from March 7 to 20, where he is on the entry list, and the Miami Open from March 21 to April 3.

Indian Wells organisers said vaccinations will be required for the event, but added that player protocols for Djokovic and other men's players will be decided by the ATP in line with US restrictions.

Djokovic told the BBC he was "sad and disappointed" about the row in Australia. But he insisted his health comes above making history.

"The principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title or anything else," he said.

"I was never against vaccination," added Djokovic, who said he had received vaccines as a child. "But I've always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body."

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