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December 29, 2021

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Novak mystery deepens as stars arrive ahead of Australian Open

Novak Djokovic has not withdrawn from the ATP Cup despite claims he was almost sure to do so, Tennis Australia said yesterday, as other top players, led by Naomi Osaka, began arriving ahead of the Australian Open.

There have been serious doubts as to whether men’s world No. 1 Djokovic would travel to Australia, having refused to confirm if he has been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

An unnamed member of his team told Serbian newspaper Blic that they were “99 percent” sure that he would not play in the ATP Cup, which comes ahead of the Australian Open, adding to the intrigue over whether Djokovic would be at the first Grand Slam of the year.

But Tennis Australia said the Serb had yet to pull out of the teams event, which is due to start on Saturday in Sydney with Djokovic drawn to play Norway’s Casper Ruud on the opening day.

“We haven’t heard of any withdrawals from Team Serbia for the ATP Cup,” a spokesperson said.

TA has organized charter flights to bring international stars into Melbourne and Sydney, with the first arriving yesterday. Defending women’s Australian Open champion Osaka was among those to touch down, but Djokovic was not on board, TA said. Players can also opt to fly commercial.

Nine-time Australian Open champion Djokovic could win a record 21st Grand Slam title if he plays at Melbourne Park, but to enter Australia he and members of his entourage have to be vaccinated.

The 34-year-old has previously expressed his opposition to the vaccine and his father Srdjan said in late November that Djokovic would probably not play the Australian Open, accusing the organizers of “blackmail.”

The ATP Cup has already been hit by several players testing positive for COVID-19, including Russian world No. 5 Andrey Rublev and Canada’s Wimbledon semifinalist Denis Shapovalov.

Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal, who was due to play a warm-up event in Melbourne next week, also contracted the virus. They all played in an Abu Dhabi exhibition tournament this month.

Three female players at the same event also tested positive — Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic, US Open champion Emma Raducanu and Wimbledon quarterfinalist Ons Jabeur.

TA has organized the charter flights to help minimize the risk of getting the virus on the trip over, with all passengers having to provide proof of a negative test in the 72 hours before flying. The Australian Open starts on January 17.

Meanwhile, Dominic Thiem has pulled out of the Australian Open to work towards regaining full fitness after a long-standing wrist injury, the former world No. 3 said yesterday.

The 28-year-old Austrian, who has not played since suffering the injury at the Mallorca Open in June, was unable to defend his US Open title this year.

He had earlier withdrawn from the ATP Cup and other warmup events ahead of the Melbourne hardcourt major.

“I am now feeling well again, my wrist is in optimal condition and I am practicing normally with a very good intensity,” Thiem said on Twitter.

“After the short holidays, my team and I have assessed all matters and we have decided to make some changes to my initial tournament schedule.”

Thiem, who has slipped to 15th in the rankings, reached the final at Melbourne Park last year before winning his maiden major title at Flushing Meadows.

He opted against playing five-set matches on his return to competition at the Australian Open, deciding to start his 2022 season at the Cordoba Open in Argentina at the end of January.

“I will miss the Australian fans, but I will be back (there) in 2023,” Thiem added. “We believe this is the right decision in order to have a good return to competition. For the moment I will remain in Austria for a few more days and then head to practice outdoors and get ready for my first event of the season.”

Thiem became the latest top player to pull out of the Grand Slam due to injury after Roger Federer, Milos Raonic, Jennifer Brady, Karolina Pliskova, Serena Williams and Bianca Andreescu.


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