World number one Novak Djokovic played only one of two scheduled sets in his opening game of the season Friday as he grapples with a nasty blister on his racquet hand ahead of the Australian Open.
The 17-time Grand Slam winner didn’t appear for the first set against young Italian Jannik Sinner at an exhibition in Adelaide, just hours after emerging from two weeks’ quarantine, with fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic taking his place.
But with a near-full crowd at Memorial Drive, Djokovic said he couldn’t stay away and came on court for the second set, to huge roars.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t step on the court from the beginning. I had to do some treatment with my physio and I wasn’t feeling my best the last couple of days,” the defending Australian Open champion said after winning his set 6-3.
“I didn’t know how I was going to react, but I wanted to play, I wanted to get out here.
“Thank you so much for making our day and making our year. We didn’t play in front of this big a crowd in 12 months so this is something very special,” he added.
Television pictures showed a raw blister on the palm of his right hand, where he grips his racquet. Djokovic said it was painful, although it didn’t appear to hamper his shot-making.
“It’s not easy, but it’s part of what we do. We’re professional athletes, we learn over the years to play with the pain. It’s just a question of whether the pain is bearable or not,” he said.
“So obviously, coming off a hard training block and having the ATP Cup and Australian Open around the corner, you don’t want to risk it too much.
“But the emotion was so strong in me to come out on the court today, seeing almost full stands, I just had to play. That’s it, I had to play.”
Serena Williams plays Naomi Osaka later before Rafael Nadal takes on Dominic Thiem in the evening session then world number one Ashleigh Barty faces second-ranked Simona Halep.
They have all been serving a mandatory 14 days’ quarantine in Adelaide, with Friday their first taste of freedom, although they have been allowed outside to practice for five hours a day.