A year ago, Novak Djokovic left Australia accompanied by border guards after one of the most interesting sports stories of the decade.
At a time when it seemed that his deportation, the result of a decision by the then Australian immigration minister due to Djokovic’s opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine, would pose a threat to public health, could leave lasting scars.
But after 12 months it’s almost possible to forget it ever happened.
The country’s new government has taken a different stance and overturned Djokovic’s automatic three-year visa ban and it would be a big surprise if he doesn’t leave the country this time with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in tow.
The Serbian may be 35, but a dedication to looking after his body – the motivation, misguided or not, behind his vaccine hesitancy – means he shows no real signs of physical decline and is as relentless on the pitch as ever.
He finished last season beating most of his main rivals to win the ATP Finals and started this campaign in perfect fashion with a title in Adelaide.
Djokovic insists he holds no grudges and his fans have flocked to Adelaide to give him a rapturous welcome, but it is unknown how he will be received by the wider range of fans arriving at Melbourne Park.
One thing that is not in doubt is his great record in Australia. He is bidding for a record 10th Australian Open title and has not lost a match Down Under since 2018, when elbow problems contributed to a shock loss to Chung Hyeon.
If Djokovic lifts the trophy, he would once again be tied at the top of the men’s all-time rankings with Rafael Nadal, who took advantage of his rival’s absence last year to win the most unexpected of his 22 Grand Slam titles.
Fearing a chronic foot problem could spell the end of his career, the Spaniard instead battled through a series of tough matches to end a 13-year wait for a second title at Melbourne Park, coming from two sets down to defeat Daniil Medvedev in the final of more than five hours.
Nadal added another crown at the French Open in June, but at 36, it appears time may be catching up with him and he heads into the tournament having lost six of his last seven matches.
Djokovic became an even bigger favorite when world number one Carlos Alcaraz, the US Open winner, withdrew last week with a leg injury, and a win would see the Serb return to the top of the rankings – a position he would be hard-pressed to claim he doesn’t deserve.
Apart from Nadal, Djokovic’s biggest challengers are likely to be familiar faces such as Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud, while Danish teenager Holger Rune, who last beat Djokovic in the Paris Masters final in November, offers the most intriguing prospects.
Cameron Norrie will fully believe he can be among those names and the British number one has started the season brilliantly, with his three wins at the United Cup including his first against Nadal.
Norrie is one of four Britons in the top 50 along with Dan Evans, Andy Murray and 21-year-old Jack Draper, who is one to watch and will look to upset Nadal in the first round.
Emma Raducanu was hoping for a more positive start to 2023 after struggling last year and putting in a lot of physical work in the off-season only for a rolled ankle in Auckland last week to put her participation in doubt.
The absence of reigning champion Ashleigh Barty, who recently announced she is expecting her first child after her shock retirement last March, will be felt heavily in the women’s draw.
The world’s number one tennis player Iga Swiatek is a hot favorite, but she is still extremely victorious on hard surfaces, and they hope that Ons Jabeur, Jessica Pegula, Aryna Sabalenka, Caroline Garcia and Coco Gauff will be in the mix.