But Australian government policy has changed, now allowing unvaccinated foreigners to enter the country, even without an exemption. Djokovic, a nine-time Australian Open singles champion, returned to Australia this year and has received a warm welcome so far on his way to the semifinals of the lead-in tournament in Adelaide this week.
Though Alcaraz finished the season at No. 1, becoming the youngest man to do so, Djokovic finished 2022 with the momentum, winning the ATP Finals for the sixth time. It was a triumphant finish to his strangest and most tumultuous season, in which his unvaccinated status kept him from competing in two majors (the Australian Open and U.S. Open) and four Masters 1000 events in North America. He also received no ranking points for winning Wimbledon because of the tours’ decision to strip tournament of ranking points in light of its ban of Russian and Belarusian players.
Despite that major mathematical handicap, Djokovic is still ranked No. 5 and was the heavy favorite to win the Australian Open even before Alcaraz’s withdrawal. But the Spaniard’s absence eliminates the enticing prospect of an intergenerational duel down under between the reigning No. 1 and the longest-reigning No. 1.
Djokovic, the elastic 35-year-old Serbian, has held the top spot for a men’s record of 373 weeks and has a chance to reclaim that spot by winning a 10th Australian Open title.
Alcaraz, who reached the third round in Melbourne last year, will have to watch from afar this time and steel himself for the long haul in a grinding, global, increasingly physical sport made all the tougher by a short off-season.
He had a 2022 to savor, winning five singles titles and providing a surplus of social-media clip material with his airborne, all-action style and taste for the abrupt and spectacular change of pace: often a thunderous forehand followed by a deft drop shot. He was also sportsmanlike, giving opponents’ points and the benefit of the doubt on multiple occasions.
But his torrid run clearly took a mental and physical toll. After winning the U.S. Open, he won just six of his next 10 singles matches, failing to reach another final. He also lost both matches in the Abu Dhabi exhibition in straight sets, to Andrey Rublev and Ruud.
His staying power, unlike his luminous talent, is, for now, a question mark.