Novak Djokovic will take on Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti next week in Dubai in a tough first-round comeback after the drama surrounding his deportation to the Australian Open.
The world number one returns to court on Monday after the string of coronavirus vaccines that kept him from defending his Australian Open title.
Djokovic and wildcard Musetti have a history, with the 19-year-old taking the Serb’s first two sets when they met at last year’s French Open.
Musetti eventually retired due to injury and Djokovic led the last 16 clash 6-7 (7/9), 6-7 (2/7), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0.
Djokovic went on to seal the title at Roland Garros for his 19th Grand Slam, with his 20th secured at Wimbledon the following month.
The 34-year-old has kept a low profile since his deportation from Australia last month for refusing to be stabbed.
“I’m excited to be back playing on Monday,” he told media in Dubai on Thursday.
“I miss tennis after everything that happened.”
Spanish rival Rafael Nadal won the Australian Open and became the first man to win 21 major titles, one ahead of Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Djokovic, who last hit a ball out of anger at the Davis Cup in Madrid in December, is a five-time winner in Dubai.
The event will also feature Briton Andy Murray, who has three major titles to his name and will start against a qualifier.
Second-placed Andrey Rublev has a first-round date with Briton Dan Evans, while Saturday’s draw pitted Dubai’s winner Aslan Karatsev against American Mackenzie McDonald from last year.
Djokvoic can participate in the tournament because a vaccine against the coronavirus is not a requirement to enter the United Arab Emirates, which announced 895 new cases on Thursday.
His path to playing at the French Open and Wimbledon appeared to be clear in recent days after Britain relaxed entry rules for Covid and France also announced an easing of restrictions.
The most problematic tournament for Djokovic at the moment is the US Open, where a vaccination certificate is required.
Two high profile tournaments are also coming up in the US: Indian Wells from March 7 to 20, where he is on the entry list, and the Miami Open from March 21 to April 3.
Djokovic told the BBC this week he was “sad and disappointed” about the spat in Australia. But he insisted that his health trumps making history.
“The principles of decision making about my body are more important than any title or anything,” he said.
“I was never against vaccination,” added Djokovic, who said he had been given vaccines as a child. “But I’ve always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body.”