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.
The world number one became the focus of a global story when he was deported from Australia on 16 January because of his Covid-19 vaccination status.
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.”