By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Alexander Zverev made a spirited defence of embattled world number one Novak Djokovic on Saturday, saying his legacy will not be tarnished by the visa saga which has rocked the tennis world ahead of the Australian Open.
Djokovic arrived in Melbourne with a medical exemption from Australia’s requirement for visitors to be vaccinated for COVID-19 but had his visa cancelled first on arrival and then again on Friday after he won a court case earlier in the week.
His hopes of winning a record 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open could be ended by the outcome of another court case on Sunday.
Djokovic’s determination to play in the tournament without vaccination angered the Australian public and drew criticism from fellow players but third seed Zverev said he was still a towering figure in the sport.
“I don’t know what the perception around the fans is,” he told reporters.
“I know that in the sport he’s still seen one of the greatest players because his achievements are not taken away.
“He still won 20 Grand Slams. He still has the most weeks as world number one. He still has the most Masters Series (titles).
“Still for me, one of the greatest players of all time.
“This is obviously not a nice thing for everyone, for him especially. But don’t question his legacy because of this.”
Should Djokovic be absent from a tournament he has won nine times it would boost the chances of players like Zverev, who have been knocking on the door at the Grand Slams for years.
Zverev named himself among contenders to watch at Melbourne Park, along with U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and sixth seed Rafa Nadal, who is level with Djokovic and the absent Roger Federer on a record 20 Grand Slam titles.
“I have practised with Rafa, who I think is playing incredible right now again,” said Zverev of the Spaniard.
Zverev was wearing a T-shirt with German colours in a throwback to last year’s Olympic triumph in Tokyo where he won the singles gold, the proudest moment of his career.
He said the clothing gave him good vibes ahead of the Grand Slam.
“I did have the biggest victory, the biggest tournament in the world that I won in this gear. It brings back incredible memories,” he said.
“I just wanted to have that feeling before the tournament starts here.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)