For the first time since his chaotic exit from the Australian Open before the tournament even began, Novak Djokovic returned to the court Monday.
Djokovic won his first match of the year, a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Lorenzo Musetti, to kick off the Dubai Championships.
Djokovic, who is still unvaccinated against COVID-19, was allowed into the United Arab Emirates and was greeted with applause for his opening match.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) February 21, 2022
“I couldn’t ask for a better reception,” Djokovic said on the court after the win. “It’s been a while since I’ve played the last match, so I couldn’t pick a better place to kickstart the season and [I had] the best possible experience tonight. Thank you very much for your support and welcoming me on the court the way you did.”
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) February 21, 2022
Djokovic has won the Dubai Championships five times in his career. He’ll take on either Karen Khachanov or Alex de Minaur in the next round.
"I have to be satisfied with my tennis, especially after not playing for two and a half, three months," Djokovic said on court, via ESPN. "Of course, there were moments when I played great, there were moments when I made a couple of unforced errors in a row uncharacteristically. But it's normal to expect that [in my] first match after a while."
Djokovic returns after Australian Open issues
Djokovic was deported from Australia last month after the country’s government revoked his visa due to his vaccination status.
Rafael Nadal won the Grand Slam event, which pushed him ahead of Djokovic and Roger Federer for the most wins of all time.
Djokovic, the top-ranked player in the world, said last week that he won’t receive the coronavirus vaccine and is willing to miss other major events — including the French Open and Wimbledon — over the issue. He insisted that he isn’t an anti-vaxxer.
Though the vaccine is free, safe and incredibly effective in slowing the spread of the disease and significantly reducing the risk of it causing death or severe illness, Djokovic said he wants the personal freedom to refuse to get it. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 5.8 million people worldwide.
"Me as an elite professional athlete, I've always carefully reviewed, assessed everything that comes in from supplements, food, sports drink, the water that I drink, sports drinks — anything that comes into my body as a fuel," Djokovic said. "Based on all the information that I got, I decided not to take the vaccine."
Djokovic has appeared in a video with a coach that promotes telepathy and telekinesis, and hosted a chat with a “wellness guru” that claimed toxic food and polluted water can be purified through emotions and prayer.
Djokovic was also seen in the early days of the pandemic flaunting mask mandates. He also tested positive in 2020 after putting on a tennis event in Croatia that did not follow basic safety guidelines.
Though it’s unclear where else Djokovic will compete this year, his first event of the year kicked off with a win.