WATCH: Djokovic addressed a crowd of adoring fans after a victorious start in Dubai.

And just like that, Novak Djokovic returned to action at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The top seed played and won his first match of 2022, 6-3, 6-3 against Italian wild card Lorenzo Musetti to begin his campaign for a sixth title in Dubai.

Sidelined since last year’s Davis Cup Finals, Djokovic has gone from the brink of a Calendar Year Grand Slam to practically persona non grata. The Serb is still steadfastly against receiving the scientifically and medically-endorsed COVID-19 vaccineofficially making him the only unvaccinated player in the ATP’s Top 100—but nonetheless enjoyed raucous support from the crowd, who spontaneously broke into a “NO-VAK” cheer during the coin toss and received a thumbs up from the embattled Djokovic.

It was an appropriate reaction given the Serb's own resolve to play only where he is welcome—his main takeaway from a disastrous attempt to play the Australian Open with a visa exemption that was first granted and later revoked by the Australian government.

“Wherever I have an opportunity, I'll be using probably that opportunity and going to play because this is what I do, it's what I love to do still,” he explained in a pre-tournament press conference held on Sunday. “I have support from my family. My team is still there with me. That's important for me because obviously it was not easy for anyone in my surrounding to go through these kinds of circumstances and situations that we all have been through.”

The United Arab Emirates is home to a tournament Djokovic has won five times, and cleared him to enter the country and bypass any vaccine mandate on the basis of his recent December bout with COVID—though even that excuse has come under scrutiny from outlets like the BBC.

“I've seen that media has been speculating about the validity of the tests,” said Djokovic in reference to a question about the serial number stamped on his December 16 COVID-19 test, and why it was seemingly higher than others processed on the same day.


Wherever I have an opportunity, I'll be using probably that opportunity and going to play because this is what I do, it's what I love to do still. Novak Djokovic

“I'm not in a position to understand how these tests are being processed and registered. I'm glad that Institute for Public Health in Serbia has come out publicly and validated those tests. That's all I can say, really.”

Djokovic didn’t say much in the aftermath of his expulsion from Australia, opting instead to give a long-form interview with the BBC where he committed to missing tournaments in any country that would require he receive the COVID-19 vaccine—even after falling behind Rafael Nadal in the overall Grand Slam race.

“The principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title or anything else,” he said, echoing a standard Anti-Vax talking point despite not identifying with the larger movement. “I'm trying to be in tune with my body as much as I possibly can."

He was largely in tune against Musetti, who nearly knocked Djokovic out of Roland Garros last spring when he led the eventual champion by two sets to none. One of Italy’s many rising stars alongside Matteo Berrettini, Jannik Sinner, and Lorenzo Sonego, the teenager scored a solid win over Hubert Hurkacz two weeks ago in Rotterdam and began Monday’s clash against Djokovic with a pair of audacious winners.

Djokovic was unrattled and scored the lone break of the opening set, saving three break points in the next game to reel off his next 10 points on serve.

The “NO-VAK” cheers returned early in the second set when Musetti threatened to claw break from a break down in a marathon sixth game, and again when he edged over the finish line in an hour and 13 minutes. Often the underdog against more popular opposition, Djokovic has ironically created a COVID bubble of his very own, shielding himself from the kinds of crowds he would have likely endured in Australia. Following a warm embrace with Musetti at net, Djokovic indulged Centre Court with his signature heart-throwing salute.

"I couldn't ask for a better reception," he said after the match. "I couldn't pick a better place to kickstart the season. It was the best possible experience tonight and thank you very much for your support and for welcoming me on court the way you did."

With either Karen Khachanov or Alex de Minaur looming in the second round, Djokovic may yet take home another title in Dubai thanks to his consistent level and iron will, though one can't help but wonder: is this vaccine-optional schedule sustainable? Where exactly does Djokovic now fit in the greater narrative if he is ruled out of the sport's biggest stages? His vastly reduced schedule has already put his No. 1 ranking under threat: he must reach the quarterfinals in Dubai to even have a hope of holding off Russian rival Daniil Medvedev.

Neither Djokovic nor the Dubai crowd seemed to care about the larger implications on a celebratory night; perhaps neither should we.