DUBAI (AFP) - Novak Djokovic made a successful return to the tour for the first time since his deportation from Australia, kicking off his 2022 campaign with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti in Dubai on Monday (Feb 21).
The Serbian world No.1 was greeted by loud cheers from a packed Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium as he commenced his quest for a sixth title in the Emirates in style.
"I couldn't ask for a better reception. It's been a while since I played the last match, I couldn't pick a better place to kick-start the season," said Djokovic.
"Best possible experience tonight, thanks very much for your support and welcoming me on court the way you did," added Djokovic on court as 'Nole, Nole' chants rang throughout the arena.
"All in all it's a straight-sets win. I have to be satisfied with my tennis, especially after not playing for almost three months."
The 34-year-old's hopes of winning a 10th Australian Open, and 21st Grand Slam, in Melbourne last month were shattered when he had his visa cancelled and was deported for not being vaccinated against Covid-19.
Djokovic can play in Dubai as a coronavirus vaccine is not a requirement to enter the United Arab Emirates.
Djokovic's win over 19-year-old Musetti was his first competitive match since the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid last December.
It was a rematch of their Roland Garros fourth round from last spring, where Musetti led Djokovic by two-sets-to-love before retiring in the decider.
A break of serve in the fourth game of the contest saw Djokovic inch ahead and he had to stave off a trio of break points to consolidate his advantage and lead 4-1.
The top seed needed just 36 minutes to take the opening set, sending the buoyant Dubai crowd to its feet.
Another early break gave Djokovic control of the second set but he became increasingly frustrated when he faced four break points en route to a 4-2 hold, roaring in anger towards his team in the stands.
That only fired Djokovic up even more as he comfortably marched into the last 16 in 74 minutes.
The 20-time major champion now awaits the winner of the first-round duel between Karen Khachanov and Alex de Minaur.
Murray warns of 'consequences'
Earlier, former world No.1 Andy Murray battled for nearly three hours against Australian qualifier Christopher O'Connell before advancing to the second round with a 6-7 (4/7), 6-3, 7-5 victory.
Murray is now just one win shy of his goal of reaching 700 career match-wins and could check that item off his bucket list if he comes out victorious in his next clash against either Italian No.4 seed Jannik Sinner or Spain's Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
The three-time Grand Slam winner says he does not agree with Djokovic's stance against the vaccine but Murray believes the tour is better off when the world No.1 is able to compete.
"I think it would be a lot easier for him obviously if he was to get vaccinated," Murray said on Monday.
"But I also didn't like seeing him in the situation that he was in Australia as someone that I respect, have known since I was a child.
"There are consequences to the decisions he's made just now. He obviously has to accept that. But I don't think it's great for tennis if our best player is not competing in the major events." Rafael Nadal, who in Djokovic's absence won the Australian Open for a record-setting 21st Grand Slam title, offered long-distance support.
'Let Novak play'
"Vaccinated or unvaccinated, let Novak play again," Nadal said at a press conference ahead of the Mexican Open, in Acapulco, where he and world number two Daniil Medvedev are playing.
Djokovic has his world number one ranking under threat this week.
Even if he wins in Dubai, Djokovic could lose the top spot, which he has held since February 2020, to Medvedev.
In total, he has held the top ranking for 361 weeks.
Djokovic's refusal to get vaccinated could also cause problems and cost him ranking points, particularly with two Masters tournaments coming up in the United States.
He is on the entry list at Indian Wells from March 7 to 20, even though it is currently restricted to vaccinated players. That is followed by the Miami Open from March 21 to April 3.
There are still three more Grand Slam tournaments to play this year - the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Djokovic is the defending champion at Roland Garros and the All England Club.
"We all hope that the health crisis will evolve in a positive direction, but if that does not change, he will need a vaccination pass and therefore Novak Djokovic will not be with us (in Paris)," French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu told RTL radio on Sunday.