After Australian furore, Djokovic starts his season in Dubai
Novak Djokovic's season, derailed in January when he was deported ahead of the Australian Open in a dispute over a Covid medical exemption, finally starts on Monday in Dubai.
"I am excited to go back and play on Monday," Djokovic told media in Dubai last week. "I miss tennis after all that has happened."
The organisers have dubbed the first day of the ATP event 'Magnificent Monday' and a couple of other marquee entrants, Marin Cilic and Andy Murray, will also be in action.
But all eyes will be on Djokovic, the only one of the tournament's eight seeds who is in action on Monday. He closes the day on centre court against Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti.
Djokovic last played when he beat Cilic on December 3 but could not stop Croatia eliminating Serbia in the Davis Cup semi-final in Madrid to end his 2021 season.
His campaign this year was knocked off course when he was deported from Australia following a drawn out dispute over his medical exemption from the country's Covid vaccination rules.
Djokovic lost the argument and his chance to win a record 21st Grand Slam title. Instead, Rafael Nadal took the title and sole ownership of the record.
Djokovic is able to play in Dubai as a coronavirus vaccine is not a requirement to enter the United Arab Emirates.
The Serbian is a five-time winner in Dubai and he finally starts his season with a point to prove and his number one ranking under threat.
"I can't say that things will be the same when I return to the court," he told Serbian public broadcaster RTS last week. "But there is an additional reason to play better than ever."
Even if he wins in Dubai, Djokovic could lose the top spot, which he has held since February 2020, to the other Melbourne finalist, Daniil Medvedev, who is in action this week almost 15,000km away in Acapulco.
Even if Djokovic defends his status this week, his refusal to get vaccinated could cause problems and cost him ranking points, particularly with two high-profile tournaments coming up in the United States.
- 'Continue my career' -
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.
"It will depend on the countries where the tournaments will be held, I will be ready and want to continue my career," said Djokovic.
Djokovic and wild card Musetti have history, with the 19-year-old taking the first two sets off the Serb when they met in last year's French Open.
Musetti eventually retired due to injury with Djokovic leading the last 16 clash 6-7 (7/9), 6-7 (2/7), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0.
Cilic, a former world number three, will open the action on Monday against Czech qualifier Jiri Vesely. Murray is on court immediately before Djokovic, against Australian Christopher O'Connell.
At 34, former world number one Murray is playing with a metal hip after surgery in 2019, and won just a single game as he was crushed by Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in Qatar on February 16.
Bautista Agut is seeded eighth in Dubai.
The second seed Andrey Rublev faces Briton Dan Evans on Tuesday. Number three Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, fresh from his first career title in Rotterdam, has been drawn against Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili and number four Italian Jannik Sinner will play Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
Last year's Dubai winner Aslan Karatsev will face American Mackenzie McDonald.