Djokovic’s warm return as weather creates chaos at Australian Open

Nine-time winner Novak Djokovic starts his campaign against Roberto Carballes Baena late on Tuesday.

Nine-time winner Novak Djokovic starts his campaign against Roberto Carballes Baena late on Tuesday. Photo: Getty

Not even the Melbourne weather that played havoc with yesterday’s Australian Open could derail the return, at 10.28pm on Tuesday, of a very high profile, prodigal Balkan.

It was midnight when play was finally called off on the outside courts after a rain-plagued evening — leaving Thanasi Kokkinakis just five points off a first round victory — but the wider focus was very much  on one covered court and one man.

Only the deeply cynical or those oblivious to public mood would have predicted anything other than the warmest of returns for Novak Djokovic and so it transpired, loud cheers and Serbian flags fluttering on all sides of a packed Rod Laver Arena.

His first match in two years here surprisingly dragged, the eventual two hour 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 victory over Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena plodded for long spells before a blistering last set in which Djokovic dropped just four points.

Novak Djokovic received a massive reception from the friendly crowd. Photo: AAP

A heavily strapped left knee visibly impeded the Serb who while in command always, was not at his best or sharpest. Later foe such as Rafael Nadal or Holger Rune will not be as accomodating.

“The leg is good. It’s not ideal but it’s getting there. Today was a really good test” he said.
“At the beginning I was a bit tight, I would say, mentally as well, to protect something that was bothering me last 10 days. So it took me a little bit of time to really get into the match and start moving more freely. The great sign was that the longer the match went, the better I felt, the better I moved.”
On court Djokovic played to the crowd post match.
“Thank you for giving me such a welcome and reception I can only dream of. This is the most special court in my life,” he said.

He has been in this country since December 27, spending two weeks in South Australia initially where he picked up the ATP Adelaide International title and where he was welcomed with a reverence bordering on old school royalty.

His time there, while a resounding PR success, was beyond cathartic. Whatever doubts he may have harboured on entering Australia — and his heart was pounding as he approached the Adelaide customs officers he said — were dispelled by rapturous crowds each time he set foot on an Adelaide court. Melbourne, we have now found out, is no different.

Ball boys mop up Court 3 at Melbourne Park on Tuesday night. Photo: Getty

Before Djokovic yesterday though, came the weather, first a three hour afternoon heat delay and then an outside courts washout as the rains descended upon early evening Melbourne Park.

Matches were called off, rescheduled and, in the case of the veteran Andy Murray in late afternoon, simply overran and overran.

‘Scots and searing heat are not historical bedmates but 35-year-old Murray is a man of immense mental fortitude and experience, nabbing the first two sets in 83 minutes in a roofed up Rod Laver Arena against the number 13 seed, Italy’s Matteo Berrettini.

Five times Murray has reached the AO final without winning and while a sixth appearance is almost certainly beyond him, it is impossible not to admire how he dug in and outfought the physically imposing Berrettini in a match that lengthened to five sets and close to  five hours.

It boiled down eventually to a ‘first to 10 points’ tie-beak in which the Scot finally staked his authority, nerves and hesitant play by both men on key points leading to escalating heart rates all round, the elements great contests are made of. It was, quite seriously, enthralling.

Kokkinakis worship

Thanasi Kokkinakis celebrates winning a point during his first round match against Fabio Fognini. Photo: AAP

Meanwhile Kokkinakis and Italian veteran Fabio Fognini — listed as yesterday’s third match on the sunken Kia Arena — would have reasonably expected to take to the court at about 4pm but eventually trundled on hours later to play just five points before the heavens opened and the players and crowd were sent scuttling.

The disappointment was temporary though. In place of Nick Kyrgios worship this week, simply slide in Kokkinakis. When he re-appeared on Kia Arena at 9.10pm, it was to the accompaniment of ‘Siu’ chants deeply familiar and omnipresent a year ago. Fognini had his backers but this was a partisan, one eyed crowd desperate only for the Aussie to progress, singing and chanting incessant.

Sadly, the vociferous had only the warm-up to cheer about as the rains fell once more, the players retreating to their covered seats, uncertain and bemused. The more it rained, the more the crowd sang as close to 20 officials, many with towels, then set about the court in a mass attempt to dry it in anticipation of the players’ return.

They started again at 9.50pm, a faintly ridiculous hour but Kokkinakis was keen for an early bedtime and, imperiously at times, simply blitzed his opponent to come up just short at two sets and 4-2 up with a further 40/15 advantage when more rain meant play was cancelled for the night.

Fognini, for unknown reasons, was woeful and Kokkinakis is certain to progress when plays resumes after 12.30pm today. Andy Murray on Thursday, and surely on RLA, is next up for the winner. Save your seat on the sofa now.

Alex de Minaur enjoys the limelight against Taiwan’s Yu Hsiou Hsu on Tuesday night. Photo: Getty

About 250 metres away on the covered John Cain Arena, Alex De Minaur chatted to Jim Courier after a two hour, straight sets demolition of Yu Hsiou Hsu from Chinese Taipei. Understandably upbeat, he just needs to believe in himself a little more the highest ranked Aussie left in the draw said.

“Every day in my life I just want to get better. I am feeling better than last year and hopefully I can reach a little further and will give it 100 per cent,” said Demon.

Courier picked up on Demon’s bright red kitbag court-side. ‘Don’t worry’ it read on one side, ‘be happy’ on the other. 

“It’s my 2023 New Year’s resolution, to try and take it easier on myself and enjoy it,” he said.

Keen to keep onsite fans happy, the match schedulers shifted Alexei Popyrin from Court 3 to John Cain Arena for a 9.30pm start against Chinese Taipei’s Chun-Hsin Tseng. Four hours ad 26 minutes later Popyrin prevailed, 6-1 the fifth set and a hugely impressive victory. 

Norway’s number two seed Casper Ruud, another late start and playing on Margaret Court Arena, finally won through his first round match at 1.15am.

Aussies Aleksandar Vukic and Max Purcell will resume their outside court matches today while late night exits for Aussies Jordan Thompson and Chris O’Connell were sent against an impressive earlier win for Kimberley Birrell over Estonian Kaia Kanepi.

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