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 pick a better place to kick start the season – it was the best possible experience tonight.
“All in all, it’s a straight-set win so of course I have to be satisfied, especially after not playing for two and a half, almost three months.”
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.”
He later said he had received a “very friendly” welcome back to competition by the “majority” of players.
He added: “I’m very thankful for that because having the kind of an understanding at least, I would say, if not support from my peers and my colleagues, is very important to me because they are the people that I get to see sometimes more than my family.
“I care greatly about the relationships that we have.”
Djokovic last week told BBC News he would rather miss out on future tennis trophies than be forced to get a Covid vaccine.
His interview came after widespread coverage of his deportation and scrutiny of documents his legal team used in court to say he was medically exempt from needing a vaccine to enter Australia.
Asked about his image in light of the controversies, he said: “I really don’t know. Of course, there were not many positive articles about this whole situation in the last month or so.
“I think things are maybe shifting a little bit – I’m hoping so – but I understand there’s still a lot of speculations and people questioning.”
‘It’s not great for tennis’ – Murray
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.
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 March 7 – a tournament restricted to vaccinated players – but says he will not be able to play unless rules change.
The 34-year-old’s 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 says he should not be associated with the anti-vax movement, but supports an individual’s right to choose.