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Australian Open reminds us that sport moves on easily e...

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Australian Open reminds us that sport moves on easily even without stars like Djokovic

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By Craig Ray
24 Jan 2022 0

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

The world didn’t end. Tennis didn’t stop. The season’s first Grand Slam did not collapse in on itself like a planet being drawn into a sporting black hole because the men’s No 1 tennis player failed to make it to the starting line at the Australian Open.

After 11 days of argument, court cases and disproportionate hysteria surrounding Novak Djokovic’s “medical exemption” to compete at the Australian Open, predictions that the tournament would be marred by his ejection have proved as hollow as expected.

Djokovic’s Covid-19 vaccination status was a big story because of his standing as one of the greatest tennis players ever and the apparent preferential treatment he initially received.

But once the Australian public, which is under harsh lockdown and other restrictions because of Covid, heard that an entitled sporting star was being given preferential treatment, things quickly changed.

Djokovic was ultimately denied a visa to the country, rendering his participation at the season’s first major impossible. Despite being portrayed as some sort of hero in his homeland of Serbia for being a vaccine sceptic, and because of perceived persecution by Australian authorities despite “mistakes” on visa entry forms, tennis has not suffered.

The furore over Djokovic’s absence subsided faster than two barking dogs on either side of a gate after it opens, and the tennis being played quickly caught the attention of the sporting world.

The 2022 Australian Open started on schedule and, within minutes, it was a case of “Novak who?” as the focus shifted to actual matches involving players who had followed the rules to be in Melbourne.

Andy Murray’s epic five-set opening win over Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili was, in a sporting sense, actually heroic, considering he could barely walk three years ago.

Murray lost in the second round, but not all good stories are about winning. They are about much more. Sometimes competing is enough and just being on court is a massive achievement in itself.

Seeing 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu taking down dangerous first-round opponent Sloane Stephens, herself a former US Open winner, was uplifting.

Raducanu’s march to her first major without dropping a set was one of the sports stories of 2021. Inevitably, her breakout success came with caveats such as “one-hit wonder”, so seeing her rumble her way through a tough three-setter was thrilling.

Aussie bad boy Nick Kyrgios, who is supremely talented and equally volatile, whipped up the crowd in his opening match against Brit Liam Broady with an array of stunning winners and pure cheek.

In his first service game, Kyrgios threw in an under-arm, between-the-legs serve that sent the crowd into delirium.

With his lowly ranking of 115, he inevitably ran into a wall early on, this time in the form of Russian world No 2 Daniil Medvedev in the second round. The Kyrgios party may have ended on day four of the tournament as Daniil moved inexorably to week two of the tournament, but it was fun while it lasted.

Defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka returned to the big stage after a fraught 2021 in which her mental health became one of the biggest topics in sport.

Her decision to step back from media duties at the 2021 French Open for the sake of her mental health focused attention on the issue for a wide range of sporting stars.

Osaka’s vulnerability gave others the strength to address the issue more publicly. And none was more public than gymnastics great Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics.

Osaka was the catalyst for such honesty, but it came at a cost to her tennis in the second half of 2021. So it was good to see her competing and seemingly enjoying herself on one of tennis’ biggest stages this week.

Djokovic the player is missed, but so are the injured Roger Federer and Serena Williams. That’s sport and that’s life. It moves on, regardless of who you are or how great you are. Djokovic made decisions that affected his ability to be part of the show in Melbourne and that’s a regret, or not, that he must live with.

For the rest of us, missing one or two players, even if they are among the best in the world, does not detract from the spectacle. As Djokovic found out, sport is bigger than individuals. It endures and even thrives because of, and sometimes in spite of, the antics of players or teams.

No one can deny Djokovic’s brilliance as a player and the exceptional standards he has set for tennis and more broadly for professional sport. But he is one small cog in a big wheel that keeps turning. Only he can decide if he wants to be part of the machinery again because it’s moving on, regardless. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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