Novak Djokovic in Dubai: What to expect? Who is he playing? What has he said? Will he face Andy Murray?
Novak Djokovic is set to return at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, but who is the world No. 1 playing? How will he perform? What have his fellow players said? Djokovic will be playing for the first time since he was deported from Australia in January. It could be the only tournament that Djokovic plays for a while as he is unvaccinated and is set to miss Indian Wells and the Miami Open.
'I've missed tennis' - Djokovic tells fans in Dubai he's keen to get back on court
His last competitive outing was in the Davis Cup Finals in early December when he helped Serbia reach the semi-finals. He did get time on the practice courts in Melbourne after he was released from the quarantine hotel for a few days, but he was then deported on the eve of the Australian Open.
“Everything that has happened will affect my return in Dubai,” he told Serbian outlet RTS last week.
“I will try to channel all this energy, to turn it into fuel both mentally and physically. There is extra motivation, surely.”
If Djokovic gets extra motivation from the fact he has not been able to play so far this year, what about the fact he may only get to play a handful more tournaments for the rest of the season?
Djokovic has said that he would be willing to give up the chance to play majors if it meant he did not have to get vaccinated. Without getting vaccinated he could be severely limited in what tournaments he can play.
He is able to play in Dubai as vaccination is not mandatory, but it looks like any competitive action in March is out of the question as the United States – where the ATP Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami Open are held – requires those arriving in the country to be vaccinated, with very few exemptions.
As it stands it appears Djokovic may also not be able to play a full clay schedule, unless rules change in countries where tournaments are hosted.
Has Djokovic had this long off before?
In the last couple of years Djokovic has played on a less regular basis.
Only last year the gap between the end of the 2020 season and the start of the 2021 season was eight weeks, after the ATP Cup and Australian Open were pushed back due to the pandemic.
Djokovic also didn’t play any events for two months after winning the 2021 Australian Open, deciding instead to spend more time with his family.
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He is clearly going to be determined to do well in Dubai, but will he be rusty? When he returned to the tour after the Australian Open last year he was beaten in his second match in Monte Carlo by Dan Evans. But after the 2020 season was postponed when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit he returned at the Western & Southern Open and won the title.
It seems likely that Djokovic is going to be in good shape, considering his strict diet and fitness regime. He has even said that he feels he’s at his “peak” as he returns to the tour.
“It wasn’t really difficult for me to pick up a racket and go out and practice the sport and just play,” he said ahead of playing in Dubai. “I’m as well prepared as I possibly can be.”
What reception will Djokovic get?
Djokovic is a five-time champion in Dubai and got a warm welcome when he visited Expo 2020 at the Dubai Exhibition Centre last week.
Serbia’s national pavilion was hosting an event for the Novak Djokovic Foundation, which promotes early childhood education in Serbia. Fans clapped and chanted ‘Nole’ as he walked around, and also he posed for pictures.
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The reception on the court this week is unlikely to be anything close to what Djokovic might have expected if he played in Australia.
Djokovic was warned that he could face a hostile atmosphere in Melbourne because of the controversy surrounding his non-vaccination and arrival in the country.
But in Dubai, where there are few Covid protocols, he should be greeted more warmly.
Some players suggested that Djokovic was getting preferential treatment with regards to the vaccination rules because of his status in the sport.
However, according to Djokovic the mood has been different in Dubai.
"So far here most of the players that I've seen have been positive and welcoming. It's nice to see obviously. I can't say that was the case in Australia. It was a little bit strange. But here it's well so far."
Who is Djokovic playing?
Djokovic starts with a clash against Lorenzo Musetti in the first round on Monday.
Musetti took the first two sets from Djokovic in their only previous meeting at the French Open last year before losing in five.
If Djokovic gets past Musetti he could face Karen Khachanov in the second round, with a semi-final against Rotterdam champion Felix Auger-Aliassime a possibility.
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Andy Murray is in the bottom half of the draw and faces qualifier Christian O’Connell first up.
Where will Djokovic play next?
This is yet to be revealed, and much may depend on whether he gets vaccinated.
As it stands he will miss Indian Wells and the Miami Open as he won’t be allowed into the United States, and it’s not clear if he will be able to play the Monte Carlo Masters, the curtain-raiser to the clay season.
France's sports minister Roxana Maracineanu said last month that professional athletes who want to compete in the country will have to be vaccinated, with no exemptions.
"Athletes have a role to play in helping convince non-vaccinated people into the vaccine programme as soon as possible," said Maracineanu.
Djokovic said in Dubai that he just has to "follow the rules".
"Whatever tournament that I’m able to play, I’ll be trying to get to that country and play the tournament.”