MELBOURNE – It's been so long since he had a sizeable crowd to play for, the showman in Novak Djokovic just had to come out.
Top-ranked Djokovic began his Australian Open title defense with a clinical, 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Jeremy Chardy in the closing act of the day 1 program on Rod Laver Arena.
“Makes my heart full to see the crowd in the stadium again," Djokovic said in post-match interview at the 15,000-seat arena, which was about one-third full. “This is the most people I’ve seen on the tennis court in 12 months. I really ... I really, really appreciate your support in coming out tonight."
He bristled at the suggestion that he'd been frustrated during quarantine, focusing again on the fans.
“I’m just really glad we are free. We’re playing tennis," he said. “I’m really glad we’re back in Australia. It’s a happy place for us. Happy Slam.”
The total crowd Monday at Melbourne Park was 17,922, including day and night sessions in three zones separated to enhance social-distancing measures. It was well down on the 64,387 fans that crammed onto the grounds on Day 1 of last year's Australian Open, but way more than any other major since then.
After an austere year for tennis during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a unanimous refrain from players across the day, starting with Naomi Osaka in the opening match on Rod Laver, to Serena and Venus Williams, and to mercurial local favorite Nick Kyrgios, who closed the day on the so-called Peoples' court: Thanks for coming.
While Djokovic spoke of his “love affair" with the main show court, where he has won eight Australian titles, Kyrgios was closing the day's program out on the third arena stadium — where polite applause is always secondary to whoops and whistles — with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win over Frederico Silva.