DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic said on Sunday that despite weeks away from competition and emotional distress over his recent detention and deportation, he feels he’s at his “peak” as he returns to tour.
The world’s top male tennis player sounded an upbeat note in a press conference a day before the start of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis championship, Djokovic’s first tournament since being ejected from Australia and missing the year’s first Grand Slam event over his vaccination status.
“It wasn’t really difficult for me to pick up a racket and go out and practice the sport and just play,” he told reporters. “I’m as well prepared as I possibly can be.”
Djokovic’s presence brings an unusual amount of scrutiny to the annual tournament near Dubai International Airport and authorities also apparently took extraordinary steps of their own.
Organizers blocked most photographers and videographers from Djokovic’s news conference without explanation. Earlier, security guards were out in force at Djokovic’s practice, questioning reporters who tried to grab a glimpse of him serving and swinging on the court. These restrictions were not in place, the guards acknowledged, for any other players. Organizers were not immediately available for comment.
The saga of Djokovic’s canceled travel visa on the eve of the Australian Open drew intense interest around the world, shining a light on how public officials approach pandemic restrictions and exemptions. The dramatic legal dispute also took a personal toll.
“There were lots of emotions after I came back from Australia,” he said. “It was strange. I was disappointed, I was sad about the way it all has played out and the way I left the country.”
Djokovic’s fierce commitment to stay unvaccinated against the coronavirus for the time being means he could be barred from competing in a series of upcoming Grand Slam tournaments, including the U.S. Open and French Open, where he is pursuing a record 21st Grand Slam title.
The 34-year-old has made it clear that this is a cost he’s willing to bear.
“Whatever tournament I’ll be able to play I’ll be trying to get to that country and play that tournament,” he said, acknowledging his freedom of movement and access to tournaments will depend on local virus restrictions. “I really can’t choose. It’s really about where I can go and play.”
Dubai authorities do not require visitors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter.
After hours spent ripping backhands on the baseline in Dubai, Djokovic added he was excited about returning to the tournament he has won five times.
“Having previous positive experiences on the court and titles obviously connects me to this place even more,” he said, noting that players had so far seemed warm and welcoming unlike in Australia. “We’ll play this tournament and see how it goes further down the line.”