(CNN) — Even by the standards of Novak Djokovic’s eventful tennis career – replete with trophies and astonishing performances, but also peppered with controversy – the circumstances leading up to this year’s Australian Open have been extraordinary.
“I see life as a huge learning curve,” Djokovic said in an interview with CNN last year, “and I feel that over the years I have learned to recover.”
That resilience will be put to the test in the coming days as the world No. 1 prepares to defend his Australian Open title after a turbulent start to the year.
Arriving in Australia unvaccinated, but with a medical exemption to compete after testing positive for covid-19 on December 16, Djokovic spent his first five days in a detention center in Melbourne, as he mounted a legal appeal against the revocation of your visa.
After his lawyers successfully argued that Djokovic had “absolutely checked all the boxes” for the vaccine exemption with his recent covid infection, he said his goal remains to compete in the Australian Open.
If the 34-year-old Serbian triumphs in this year’s tournament, which he has won on nine previous occasions, he would surpass Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the all-time list with 21 Grand Slam titles.
It could be said that it would be the crowning of Djokovic’s career, which has already broken all records, the moment when he establishes himself as the best player in the history of men’s tennis.
“Speaking strictly of results, Novak Djokovic is the best player in the history of men’s professional tennis,” he said. journalist Ben Rothenberg.
“He’s tied with Federer and Nadal for the most Grand Slam titles, but Djokovic dominates pretty much every tiebreaker category imaginable – the most weeks at No. 1, a record for wins against the other two, having won. every Grand Slam and Masters 1000 at least twice (no one else has ever won them all once, even). “
“Djokovic is a great serve counter-puncher, an extraordinarily flexible athlete, and while he’s probably not a popular pick for the most stylistically likable player ever, when it comes to who is the most effective and dominant on the court for the longest time. period of time, he is your man, “he affirms.
Djokovic’s phenomenal Australian Open record, which includes winning the title five times in the past seven years, makes him the favorite heading into this year’s tournament, even taking into account his stoppage time.
Nadal intensified his return from injury last week by winning his 89th career title at Melbourne’s Summer Set 1 tournament, while Daniil Medvedev, who beat Djokovic in last year’s US Open final, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas will also be contenders for the title.
Novak is Serbia, and Serbia is Novak
But few would bet against Djokovic, who received the support of his fans, both in Melbourne and in his native Serbia, during the course of his visa saga.
Last week, a crowd gathered outside the Park Hotel in Melbourne to protest against Djokovic’s residence in that city, while chants of support were heard outside his lawyers’ office after he was allowed to stay in Australia.
There were similar scenes in front of the Serbian National Assembly in Belgrade, where the tennis star was hailed as a national hero by his family.
“They are holding him captive. Our Novak, our pride,” Djokovic’s father Srdjan said in support of his son last week. “Novak is Serbia, and Serbia is Novak … They trample Novak, and thus they trample Serbia and the Serbian people.”
Despite the ardent support of his fans, Djokovic remains a controversial figure, inside and outside the tennis community.
He has spoken of his opposition to mandatory vaccinations, and the decision to grant him a medical exemption for the Australian Open was met with criticism. Stephen Parnis, one of the city’s prominent emergency physicians, said it sent “a shocking message to the public.”
“I’m not an expert, of course, and I’m not going to talk about the pros and cons of getting vaccinated,” Djokovic told CNN in August, “but I am a supporter of freedom of choice.” And he added: “I really think you have to let the player make a decision.”
“We don’t know what the future holds. I don’t think any industry really knows what the future holds.”
“We are going to make sure we gather as much expert information as possible on this topic and work with the players to provide them with all the information they need so they can make a conscious decision.”
Meanwhile, questions have also been raised about Djokovic’s actions after his positive test for covid last month.
In an affidavit released by Australia’s Federal Circuit Court on Monday, Djokovic said he knew of the positive test on December 16, but was photographed without a mask at events over the next two days.
When his family was asked if Djokovic had attended an event on December 17, his brother Djordje did not respond and quickly brought the press conference to a close.
“I still have my fears, my insecurities,” says Djokovic
It is not the first time that Djokovic’s performance during the pandemic has been questioned.
In June 2020, his Adria Tour exhibition event was canceled after he tested positive for COVID-19 alongside his wife, three other players, three coaches, and a player’s pregnant wife.
Unlike other tennis tournaments held at the time, social distancing was limited on the Adria Tour, which was played in crowded stadiums with players hugging and high-fives.
“I deeply regret that our tournament caused damage,” Djokovic said after his positive, adding that the charity event was organized “with a pure heart and sincere intentions.”
Nine months before the Adria Tour, Djokovic got into trouble when he was expelled from the US Open for hitting a linesman with a ball. He apologized again and said he was “sad and empty” about the situation.
In an interview with CNN last year, Djokovic reflected on the lessons learned.
“I’m still a human being like everyone else, I still have my fears, my insecurities, I keep making mistakes and mistakes,” he said. “Tennis is like my field of learning. My strongest and most beautiful emotions surface there, but all my worst emotions surface there.”
During this year’s Australian Open and beyond, Djokovic’s stance on vaccines is likely to continue to come under scrutiny. According to the ATP Tour, he is one of the three unvaccinated players in the ranking 100.
“Djokovic’s legacy is very complicated and increasingly so,” Rothenberg said.
“For all his professionalism and generosity (he’s great with charities and in interactions with his fans), his judgment often gets him in trouble, often veers him … towards fringe ideas, like his recent engagement. anti-vaccines “.
“A lot of tennis is about personalities and grace on and off the court, and Djokovic has repeatedly sabotaged himself in these areas.”
CNN reached out to Djokovic’s representative for comment ahead of the Australian Open, but received no response.
Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2008, after which he had to wait three years for his next major triumph, again at the Australian Open.
Grand Slam titles – 11 in total – followed each other in the six-year span between 2011 and 2016, culminating in Djokovic claiming the “Nole Slam” as the defending champion of all four Grand Slam tournaments at the same time.
But an elbow injury in 2017 derailed Djokovic’s progress. His initial unwillingness to undergo the surgery frustrated his former coach Andre Agassi, who told The Guardian that he thought Djokovic had hoped his elbow would “heal naturally, holistically.”
Djokovic finally opted for surgery in early 2018 and was back on the court a few months later, but it was a setback that almost led to him leaving tennis entirely.
“Doing the surgery was against his core values,” his wife Jelena told CNN in 2019. “It was really huge, it’s like he buried a part of him with that decision. He said, ‘I’m done, I’m not going to play anymore. to tennis, I lost this, I no longer have fun, this is it. ‘
Since that elbow operation, Djokovic has won eight Grand Slam titles in a four-year span, equaling Federer and Nadal’s record at Wimbledon last year.
Many consider it only a matter of time before he takes the record and establishes himself as the greatest player in the history of men’s tennis, a titan on the court with a complicated and controversial legacy off the court.
CNN’s Christina Macfarlane, Don Riddell, Ben Church and Hannah Ritchie contributed to this report.