Djokovic will return stronger, say fellow Serbian players

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Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 17, 2022 Serbia's Laslo Djere in action during his first round match against Canada's Denis Shapovalov REUTERS/Morgan Sette

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MELBOURNE, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic has the mental steel to overcome his Australian Open debacle and come back even stronger, his fellow Serbian players said on Monday as the year's opening major kicked off without the men's world number one and defending champion.

Djokovic, a record nine-times winner at Melbourne Park including the last three titles, left Australia on Sunday for Belgrade after losing a Federal Court appeal against the cancellation of his visa to enter the country. read more

Serbian Laslo Djere, ranked 51st, backed the 20-times Grand Slam champion to draw inspiration from the episode.

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"That's what he does. That's also in our Serbian mentality," the 26-year-old Djere told reporters.

"When we get beat down or we are treated a bad way or how we maybe don't deserve, we just try to -- especially him, tries to be inspired by that and gain strength from that.

"I'm sure that he will come back stronger than ever."

Djokovic, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, was granted a medical exemption to play in Melbourne but spent a rollercoaster 10 days in Australia before being deported.

Djere, who lost to Canadian Denis Shapovalov in the first round on Monday, said "something went horribly wrong" and described it as a "true catastrophic situation".

"I hope that in the future he will be the best tennis player in history and that this will be only looked at as a setback on his path to be the best tennis player to ever play the sport," said Serbia's Dusan Lajovic, ranked 39th.

Lajovic, who led Serbia at the recent ATP Cup in Sydney in Djokovic's absence, made it through to the second round after a five-set win over Hungarian Marton Fucsovics.

Miomir Kecmanovic, who was drawn to face compatriot Djokovic in his opening round, also advanced with a straight-sets win against Italian lucky loser Salvatore Caruso.

"We said that we're going to give everything we have, try to, say, avenge him in a way, and make him proud," said Kecmanovic.

"I know he's our best representative, so it's definitely a shame that he's not able to participate and represent Serbia, but we're going to give the best that we can and hopefully we can make up for it in some way."

Spaniard Rafa Nadal, Djokovic's biggest rival on court, said the Serbian was not the only person at fault. L4N2TX18V

"The ideal situation in the world of sport, that the best players are on court and playing the most important events," said Nadal, who is tied with Djokovic and Roger Federer on 20 major titles.

"That's better for the sport without a doubt. If Novak Djokovic was playing here, it's better for everybody, no doubt about that."

The men's draw at the year's opening major was already lacking big names like Federer and Dominic Thiem and Djokovic's exit will further boost chances for his rivals.

Former world number six Gael Monfils of France and 14th-ranked Shapovalov, however, do not see Djokovic's absence making it any easier for others.

"It's not like there's only one guy you can lose against. There's a lot of tricky opponents," Shapovalov, 22, said. "It was the same thing I felt like at U.S. Open when he (Djokovic's default) was out of the draw.

"You kind of start looking forward, feeling like the draw is open. The reality of it is that there's so many tough players. It's super tough to play against anyone."

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Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge

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