Novak Djokovic says he had the “best possible experience” in returning with a win at the Dubai Tennis Championships in his first match since being involved in a vaccination and visa saga in the build-up to the Australian Open.
But on his return to action he saw off Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti 6-3 6-3.
“A pleasant experience,” he said.
After thanking the crowd following his first match of 2022, Djokovic added: “I couldn’t ask for a better reception. It’s been a while since I played the last match.
“I couldn’t pick a better place to kick start the season – it was the best possible experience tonight.
“All in all, it’s a straight-sets win so of course I have to be satisfied, especially after not playing for two and a half, almost three months.
“There were moments I played great and moments where I made a couple of unforced errors in a row.
“It’s normal to expect that for a first time in a while. But I’m glad I managed to finish the job tonight against a very talented player from Italy.”
Number one seed Djokovic saved all seven break points he served against Musetti – the world number 58 – and will face either Russia’s Karen Khachanov or Australia’s Alex de Minaur in round two.
He beat his chest in a show of emotion after testing moments in the win but when asked if that was to draw more from him or his team he told Amazon Prime: “I’ll pass on that question.
“It’s always in the heat of the battle, the atmosphere where you need to get that energy out. Sometimes you are frustrated with yourself, your game, the things that are happening.
“You know it’s important to re-group, get your things together and focus on the next point.”
‘I’ll follow the rules’ – Djokovic
Serbia’s Djokovic – winner of the tournament five times – could lose the world number-one status he has held for 86 consecutive weeks to Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, depending on their performances in separate tournaments this week.
Last week he told BBC News he would rather miss out on future tennis trophies than be forced to get a Covid vaccine.
He is able to feature in Dubai as a Covid-19 vaccine is not a requirement to enter the United Arab Emirates.
He is also entered to play at Indian Wells from 7 March – a tournament restricted to vaccinated players – and said on Sunday he will “just have to follow the rules”.
“Whatever tournament that I’m able to play, I’ll be trying to get to that country and play the tournament,” the 34-year-old said.
His decision to turn down the vaccination could restrict his opportunity to build on his 20 Grand Slam wins – one behind record-holder Rafael Nadal.
He currently holds the Wimbledon and French Open titles. But his participation at Roland Garros in May is currently in doubt, with French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu stating on Sunday that under current rules he “will need a vaccination pass and therefore will not be with us”.
Following his own win on Monday, Britain’s Andy Murray said it would be “easier” for Djokovic if he were to get vaccinated.
“But I also didn’t like seeing him in the situation that he was in Australia as someone that I respect and have known since I was a child,” Murray said.
“There are consequences to the decisions he’s made just now – he obviously has to accept that. But I don’t think it’s great for tennis if our best player is not competing in the major events.”
Djokovic was deported from Australia last month after the government cancelled his visa in a row over his vaccine status.
He said he had obtained a medical exemption to enter the country to play in the Australian Open as he had recently recovered from Covid-19.
However, the country’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, personally cancelled the 34-year-old’s visa, on the grounds that his presence could incite “civil unrest” and encourage anti-vaccine sentiment.
Djokovic says he should not be associated with the anti-vax movement, but supports an individual’s right to choose.