Rafa Nadal entered the court and the gentleman with the large Serbian flag rose from his front-row seat. It seemed there could be trouble.
A prominent V and A could be seen beneath its crumpled emblem, probably part of a rendering of Novak in black, capital letters. Here was the moment tournament organisers had feared. The Djokovic backlash. Serbian exiles, anti-vaxxers, the crowd of troublemakers said to be making a beeline for the Melbourne Park complex. Extra security had been laid on, but it was a large site. Nobody could police every acre.
Nadal may be the greatest beneficiary of Djokovic’s expulsion if he lands Grand Slam No 21 and, in doing so, statistically becomes the greatest of all time.
Rafa Nadal entered the court started in style at the Australian Open, beating Marcos Giron
The gentleman with the flag turned to his compatriot, and gave the secret signal. He immediately reached in his holdall and pulled out . . . the sun cream. After all, it was hot out there. The grey clouds had burned off at last and there were shadows and a strong mid-afternoon warmth. Can’t be too careful.
So sunscreen liberally applied, the flag was neatly folded away and Novak’s No 1 fan sat down to watch the tennis. He’s quite good this Nadal chap, you know. Lovely mover. Plenty of oomph.
Lee Evans used to open his sets pretending to be a nervous young comedian, drowning on stage, frantically trying to attain empathy with his audience. ‘Trouble? Getting here? Trouble?’ he would ask, in search of mutual recognition. Short, desperate pause. ‘No. None at all. None at all. Straight through. No problem.’
Monday felt rather like that. The TV crews hovering outside for the riot slated to follow Djokovic’s deportation went home with little to titillate let alone scandalise.
Organisers feared the Djokovic backlash as the Australian Open finally got underway
Extra security had been laid on, but it was a large site and nobody could police every acre
There were no mobs with burning torches, no large-scale protests, little in the way of resistance at all. After the weighty debates and courtroom dramas that dominated the prior week, it was, whisper it, all a little dull.
The early rounds of Grand Slam tennis can be like that, whereas Djokovic’s battle to remain in Australia was the very essence of our modern, pandemic life. The rights of the individual versus the common needs of wider society. The excesses or limitations of state power. The need to control borders, set against our basic human rights and choices.
Big stuff. Big themes. And at the centre of it all, the greatest tennis player in the world. By contrast, this was a series of mismatches, played out in quarter-full arenas, undersubscribed even given the limits on attendance.
The first four matches on Rod Laver Arena, the prime site, were all over in straight sets. Ashleigh Barty, the local hero put on in the evening no doubt to compensate those who bought tickets in the belief they would be watching Djokovic, took down Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko in 54 minutes. She won the first 11 games, eventually taking the match 6-0, 6-1.
Djokovic was deported from Australia on Sunday after 11 days of legal wrangling ended with the full bench of the Federal Court siding with Minister Hawke’s decision to cancel his visa
There is something delightfully unstarry about Barty. After an entire day of mismatches, the stadium announcer was relishing the opportunity to get the crowd engaged and noisy.
Barty got the big build-up, the stadium responded — in its relatively genteel way — before Barty emerged and, much like a groundhog spying a shadow and long winter months ahead, turned tail and disappeared back inside.
She looked to be speaking to an official, maybe she’d forgotten something, maybe she’d left the gas on, but it seemed to encapsulate a day of anti-climax, after so much high-stakes brinkmanship.
Meanwhile, the elephant most certainly no longer in the room, was being tracked as he traversed the globe on his way home. Djokovic landed in Dubai mid-afternoon local time in Melbourne, posed for a few selfies and ignored a question from a passer-by about his three-year ban from Australia.
Whether this will be enforced it is too early to say. Anyone deported from Australia cannot re-enter for three years, by which time Djokovic will be 37. Yet, as always, there are exceptions, individual circumstances that might be considered. Any Grand Slam competition is poorer without the world’s best player. Australia may have loosened up 12 months from now; Djokovic’s circumstances may have changed. The government already seem to have forgotten why they had exiled him in the first place.
Ashleigh Barty (above), the local hero, was put on in the evening to compensate those who bought tickets in the belief they would be watching Djokovic
She took down Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko (above) in 54 minutes of action on Monday
Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, gave a triumphant interview then said it was because his visa wasn’t in order — which wasn’t his Immigration Minister’s case at all. Djokovic had to go, it was argued in Federal Court, because he presented a threat to good order.
So it must have been quite a relief, then, when that threat finally got its act together and gathered outside later in the day.
There were, roughly, two dozen of them, several in wheelchairs sitting on a grass embankment outside. This was the Occupy Australian Open group. They carried posters. ‘Stop the mandates. Scrap the vax pass. End medical segregation. Let Djokovic play.’
A more fitting one might have read, ‘Bring snacks’. It looked more like a poorly organised picnic. Certainly, an occupation would be pushing it.
Police were in attendance just in case it turned nasty, but as quite a few of the protesters were laying down — on blankets, not in an Insulate Britain way — it is hard to imagine what threat to public order they presented barring a trip hazard.
Meanwhile, no stumbles for Nadal in Djokovic’s absence. Vivid in cerise he bounded on to the court as if aware a little razzle-dazzle was required in the absence of the main attraction, and proceeded to demolish Marcos Giron in double-quick time, the 6-1 first set over in 24 minutes. Even he seemed to be missing Djokovic.
‘The ideal situation is that the best players play the most important events,’ Nadal said. ‘If Novak is playing here, it’s better for everybody. The situation has been a mess. He’s not the only one that probably did things bad in the case. On a personal level, yes, I’d like to see him playing.’
Spaniard Nadal looked in good form in Australia, winning the first set 6-1 in 24 minutes
Outside, the occupying army was gearing up for 14 days of protest. They were promising a 24/7 vigil, involving ‘music, BBQs, megaphones, drums and pots and pans to make a noise’. Occupiers would require sleeping bags and tarpaulins. There was also a plea for ‘devices with streaming services to watch the tennis’.
Not exactly the storming of the Winter Palace, then. Not exactly Valentine Strasser seizing control of Sierra Leone and blasting McFadden and Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now from the deposed government’s HQ.
This rather appears to be the revolution that will be televised; although nobody is guaranteeing viewers will be greatly entertained until the business end of the tournament begins. Elvis has left the building.