Novak savors warm welcome

PAUL CROCK/ AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE NOVAK Djokovic gets a warm welcome in his first competition in Australia since getting deported last year due to his vaccination status.

MELBOURNE, Australia (AFP) — Novak Djokovic said he felt “very much appreciated” as he made a perfect return to the Australian Open with a ruthless victory over Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena on Tuesday.

The Serb enjoyed a rousing reception at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne following his deportation a year ago as he launched his bid for a 10th Australian Open title in style.

The 35-year-old, who missed last year’s Grand Slam because of his stance on Covid vaccines, showed few signs of the hamstring niggle he picked up in Adelaide this month as he raced to an emphatic 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 win.

There were concerns over how the former No. 1 might be received by fans at Melbourne Park following the deportation saga 12 months ago.

The city endured lengthy lockdowns during the height of the pandemic.

But, as in Adelaide, the fourth seed walked out to loud cheers and chants of “Nole,” with vocal backing during the match from a stadium awash with Serbian flags.

“Thank you for giving me such a welcoming reception that I could only dream of,” said Djokovic, who is chasing a record-tying 22nd major title.

“I feel really happy that I’m back here in Australia and on the court where I have had the biggest success in my career. “

“Definitely this court is the most special court in my life and I couldn’t ask for a better start to the tournament.”

He arrived at Melbourne Park in sizzling form after ending 2022 by winning another ATP Finals title, then followed that up by triumphing at the Adelaide International.

As if that wasn’t daunting enough for 75th-ranked Carballes Baena, Djokovic came into the clash having won his last 21 Australian Open matches.

He opened with an ace, but didn’t have it all his own way at first, needing to save three break points in the fifth game.

But he quickly settled and broke the next game to love for a 4-2 lead and closed out the set.

His hamstring appeared to trouble him briefly when he slid for a shot at 2-2 in the next set, but he pressed on and broke again for 4-3 when Carballes Baena netted a forehand.

Djokovic stepped up a level as the clock ticked passed midnight in Melbourne and he immediately broke in the third set, with the Spaniard out of answers as the former world number one surged to victory.

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