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Djokovic finally gets season underway to loud cheers in Dubai
World number one Novak Djokovic finally got his season underway in Dubai on Monday, playing for the first time this year after being deported from Australia for not being vaccinated.
At 2215 local time (1815GMT), Djokovic arrived on court to face Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti in his first competitive match since the Davis Cup Finals in early December.
The Serbian star was greeted by loud cheers from a packed Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium as he kicked off his quest for a sixth title in the Emirates.
The 34-year-old's hopes of winning a 10th Australian Open, and 21st Grand Slam, in Melbourne last month were shattered when he had his visa cancelled and was deported.
Djokovic can play in Dubai as a coronavirus vaccine is not a requirement to enter the United Arab Emirates.
He spoke to reporters on Sunday night about how it felt to be back on the tennis circuit, and whether there has been any negative reaction from his peers.
"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," he said.
Rafael Nadal, who in Djokovic's absence won the Australian Open, offered long-distance support.
"Vaccinated or unvaccinated, let Novak play again," Nadal said at a press conference ahead of the Mexican Open, in Acapulco, where he and world number two Daniil Medvedev are playing.
Victory in Melbourne was Nadal's 21st at a major, moving him one clear of Djokovic and Roger Federer on the all-time list. Nadal said the Serb's absence was distorting the records.
"It will affect his history, whether he can play or not, it will affect himself, the Grand Slams, I don't know what," Nadal said, although he added that "we are talking about small things within a world that has suffered in every way".
Djokovic is a five-time winner in Dubai and finally started his season with a point to prove and his number-one ranking under threat.
Even if he wins in Dubai, Djokovic could lose the top spot, which he has held since February 2020, to Medvedev.
If Djokovic defends his status this week, his refusal to get vaccinated could cause problems and cost him ranking points, particularly with two Masters tournaments coming up in the United States.
- 'Follow the rules' -
He is on the entry list at Indian Wells from March 7 to 20, even though it is currently restricted to vaccinated players. That is followed by the Miami Open from March 21 to April 3.
"I just have 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," Djokovic said on Sunday.
"I really can't choose right now. It's really about where I can go and play. Wherever I have an opportunity, I'll be using probably that opportunity and going to play because this is what I do, it's what I love to do still."
There are still three more Grand Slam tournaments to play this year -- the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Each has potential significance as Djokovic battles Nadal for the record.
In Mexico, Nadal refused to be drawn on whether he, Djokovic or Federer could claim to be the greatest of all time.
"It's not for me to talk about that because I'm an involved party," Nadal said, adding that all three "had achieved more than we would have dreamed".
"There could be arguments of different kinds that could give that title that you like so much of 'the best in history' to anyone," he said. "It's a question of individual taste."
Djokovic is the defending champion at Roland Garros and the All England Club.
"We all hope that the health crisis will evolve in a positive direction, but if that does not change, he will need a vaccination pass and therefore Novak Djokovic will not be with us (in Paris)," French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu told RTL radio on Sunday.
Earlier on Centre Court, former world number one Andy Murray dropped a 68-minute opening set before coming back to defeat Australian qualifier Christopher O'Connell 6-7 (4/7), 6-3, 7-5 in a three-hour battle.
The three-time Grand Slam winner, competing in Dubai for the first time since he won the title in 2017, next takes on Italian fourth seed Jannik Sinner or Spain's Alejandro Davidovich Fokina for a place in the quarter-finals.