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    The Liberty Are Reinventing Themselves

    The team enters the 2022 W.N.B.A. season with a new coach and center, returning players who were hampered by injuries last year, and the desire to become full-fledged title contenders.The Liberty are not sure what the full identity of their revamped team should be. But they are certain about one aspect of it.“I want teams to kind of be scared of us when they have to be on offense,” said forward Natasha Howard, who won the W.N.B.A.’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2019, when she was with the Seattle Storm.This will be Howard’s second season with the Liberty, but in many ways, and for many reasons, it seems unlikely to be much like her first. The team has a new head coach (Sandy Brondello), a new veteran center (Stefanie Dolson) and, players said, a new commitment to becoming a championship contender once the season begins May 6.“There’s a sense of urgency,” guard Sabrina Ionescu said during the Liberty’s media day on Thursday. She added that the team did not want to wait years to become better, and had a “Why not us?” mentality.The Liberty finished last season with a 12-20 record and slid into the playoffs as the eighth seed. They lost to the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in a first-round single-elimination game. The team had injury woes all season: Jocelyn Willoughby tore an Achilles’ tendon in a preseason scrimmage; Howard missed 15 games because of a knee injury; Ionescu dealt with a lingering ankle injury.All three are back and said they are feeling good.“I’m way ahead of where I used to be,” Willoughby said.Another returner is guard Asia Durr, who goes by AD. Durr, the second overall draft pick in 2019, missed the past two seasons as they recovered from Covid-19. On Thursday, Durr said they were still dealing with confusion and brain fog but that Liberty teammates had been helpful.“It’s pretty challenging to stay patient every single day,” Durr said, punctuating the last three words.Like Howard and several others, Durr mentioned defense as the focus of this year’s team. Brondello, who coached the Mercury to the finals last season in her eighth year with the team, said she wanted the Liberty to have an “aggressive mentality.”More points in the paint. Fewer turnovers. Not settling for outside shots. Drawing more fouls.“We’re trying to develop a tough team,” Brondello said.At the core of the team are players like Ionescu; Howard; Betnijah Laney, who was named to her first All-Star team last season; and Michaela Onyenwere, the 2021 W.N.B.A. rookie of the year. “I’m always looking to grow,” Laney said, adding that she’s surrounded by great players.Joining them is Dolson, who won a championship with the Chicago Sky last year.Dolson, a 6-foot-5 center entering her ninth season, said she likes to post up — even though people don’t think she does — and that it will be difficult for teams to face off against her and the 6-foot-2 Howard.“It’s hard to scout when both post players can kind of do everything,” she said.Dolson averaged 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game last season, and shot 40.4 percent from 3-point range. Howard averaged 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in 13 games last season.Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu had a double-double in the team’s playoff loss to Phoenix.Rebecca Noble for The New York TimesVeterans like Howard and Dolson will be key to the Liberty’s success, but so will the younger players, who spoke on Thursday about how they’ve grown and what they still need to improve.“I was so lost last year,” said DiDi Richards, a second-year guard-forward.Richards said she often was in her own head while on the court, instead of being vocal, but she is working on changing that as coaches ask her to take on a bigger leadership role. “I’m ready for it,” she said.Onyenwere spoke confidently about defense — “not really a skill; it’s all effort” — but also said she wanted to improve on offense after shooting just 32.7 percent from 3-point range last season.Guard Sami Whitcomb, who went 42.5 percent from 3-point range last year, is the team’s most prolific and best long-range shooter. She came to the Liberty last year after four seasons in Seattle, and she said she was excited about helping the team create a new identity. But, she said, it won’t happen “overnight.”Some things do happen quickly in sports, though — like going from W.N.B.A. prospect to Liberty rookie.The Liberty traded with the Storm to get the 18th pick in the draft on April 11 and used it to select Lorela Cubaj, a 6-foot-4 forward from Georgia Tech. Four days later, she signed a rookie contract with the team. Three days after that, training camp began.On Thursday, she said that she had developed as a facilitator while at Georgia Tech and hoped to use that skill with the Liberty. “I just want to put my teammates in the best position to score,” she said.One thing she wants to leave in Georgia: the food. Cubaj, who is from Italy, joked that she would not miss the pizza from Atlanta now that she is in New York. More

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    Are Super Seniors the Secret to N.C.A.A. Tournament Success?

    A number of the most successful teams in the 2022 tournaments feature athletes who are older than their N.B.A. counterparts.If this year’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments look a little bigger — a little older — your eyes are not deceiving you.Call it a silver lining of the pandemic.Before the pandemic intervened, college students had five years to complete four seasons of play. For various reasons — among them injuries, one-time transfers or competition waivers — athletes were always able to find ways to extend their eligibility. But after the pandemic eliminated many conference tournaments and the entire 2020 national tournament, the N.C.A.A. added a special bonus year: Any athlete who lost playing time during the 2019-20 season could extend their college career by a full season.Now, every team heading into the Final Four this weekend, both in the men’s and women’s tournaments, will include players who have taken advantage of this option.The additional season was meant to even the playing field, but some rosters are more stacked with super seniors and graduate students than others, and the trickle-down effect may linger for years.“I don’t think there’s any question that any of us in college athletics would see the benefits of a more experienced squad,” said Tom Burnett, the commissioner of the Southland Conference and the chairman of the Division I men’s basketball selection committee.A handful of athletes this year are older than their N.B.A. counterparts. Just look at Kansas. Last Friday against Providence, Mitch Lightfoot, 24, a veteran bench player and sixth-year student, had four blocks, and Remy Martin, a 23-year-old Arizona State transfer, came off the bench to lead the Jayhawks in scoring with 23 points. Both wouldn’t have returned to college if not for the pandemic, Coach Bill Self said last weekend, adding, “I actually think Mitch is the best he’s been.”Jalen Coleman-Lands, a super senior guard for Kansas, is 25. So is Devin Booker, who is in his seventh season with the Phoenix Suns.And there are more seasons remaining. “If you look at just our starters, those starters have eligibility left,” Self said. “Even though we’re an old team, they technically could all come back next year.”Self noted that Providence also had a handful players who were playing past the standard eligibility period.“If they didn’t have those four cats, they would look a lot different,” Self said. “If we didn’t have Remy, we’d look a lot different. If Villanova didn’t have Gillespie, they’d look a lot different.”Villanova guard Collin Gillespie averages 15.6 points per game. He won the Big East Conference Player of the Year Award for a second consecutive season.Scott Wachter/USA Today Sports, via ReutersCollin Gillespie, a 22-year-old guard, is the youngest of the three Villanova graduate students playing this weekend.But, parity concerns aside, Self said the bonus year had contributed to the “great quality of ball this year.”That was the case in the Horizon League, where Macee Williams, 23, a super senior center for Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, won her third straight league Player of the Year Award in the 2020-21 season. She chose to come back for the 2021-22 season — her fifth year — and once again won the award.“That’s an example of how our women’s basketball programs really capitalized on that opportunity,” said Julie Roe Lach, the commissioner of the Horizon League.I.U.P.U.I., a No. 13 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament, lost by only 6 points in the first round to No. 4 Oklahoma.Depending on who you ask, the additional year of eligibility can be viewed as a glass half-full, half-empty issue. It allows college athletes to reclaim their lost year of play, and a bigger, older team can mean an extra layer of cohesiveness.“Once athletes are upperclassmen, there’s a certain maturity that comes with leading the team and handling the pressure once you are in those end-of-season moments,” Roe Lach said, adding that “younger students and their teammates can benefit from their senior leadership.”But some officials are worried about the long-term effect padded rosters will have on recruiting. If athletes choose to use their extra year of eligibility, that could limit spots for fresh faces.“A lot of us are asking that question: Are the opportunities still there for high school student-athletes?” Burnett said.Macee Williams, right, returned to I.U.P.U.I. for a fifth season and won her fourth Horizon League Player of the Year Award.Mitch Alcala/Associated PressThat’s exactly what worries Adam Berkowitz, the associate executive director of New Heights Youth, a sports-based youth development nonprofit in New York. The additional season of eligibility added to an already complex system in light of the N.C.A.A.’s 2021 decision to eliminate the rule that had required athletes to sit out a season upon transferring, which had the effect of “doubling and tripling” the number of players in the transfer pool, Berkowitz said.Both those factors have created a “changed landscape” when it comes to college recruiting, he added, resulting in an all-out “scramble.”“Last year was the most difficult year I’ve ever experienced placing students at schools,” said Berkowitz, who has worked with transfer students for 20 years. “If you have an offer on the table, you have to strongly consider it, because it otherwise may not be there.”As a result, Berkowitz said, students are increasingly feeling “under-recruited” and opting to attend lower-ranked schools, both in Division I and Division II, before attempting to transfer. Berkowitz said that when he spoke to college coaches last year, many were not even looking at high school students, preferring to turn to the transfer portal and then junior colleges.Berkowitz said he anticipated this being the case for several more years, as athletes’ option to play an extra year lingers. High school sophomores will be the first class not affected by the change.“It’s just logjam at a lot of places,” he said. “If 200 guys are taking their fifth year, that’s 200 fewer spots for high school graduates.”Mitch Smith More

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    Nets Fined $50,000 for Letting Kyrie Irving Into Home Locker Room

    Irving is not allowed to be with the Nets at Barclays Center because he has not been vaccinated against Covid-19.The N.B.A. fined the Nets $50,000 for allowing guard Kyrie Irving to enter the team’s home locker room during Sunday’s game against the Knicks even though Irving had not been vaccinated against Covid-19 and thus was not allowed to be with the team at Barclays Center.Irving had attended the game as a spectator, with a seat in the front row.Under New York City law, Irving cannot play in games at Barclays Center because of a vaccine mandate for New York City-based workers who perform in-person work. While Mayor Eric Adams loosened some vaccine requirements this month, he has left in place the private sector mandate. Under the N.B.A.’s health and safety protocols, teams are obliged to follow local rules.The Nets declined to comment.During a public appearance on Sunday, Adams responded to a heckler who urged him to let Irving play: “Listen, you’re right. Kyrie can play tomorrow: Get vaccinated.”Nets forward Kevin Durant called the rule “ridiculous” after the game against the Knicks. He also criticized the mayor.“It just feels like, at this point now, somebody is trying to make a statement or point to flex their authority,” Durant told reporters. “Everybody out here is looking for attention. That’s what I feel like the mayor wants right now: some attention.”Minutes after the N.B.A. announced the Nets’ fine on Monday, Durant issued a statement through the Nets and softened his stance toward Mr. Adams.“The last two years have been a difficult and painful time for New Yorkers, as well as a very confusing time with the changing landscape of the rules and mandates,” the statement read. “I do appreciate the task the mayor has in front of him with all the city has been through. My frustration with the situation doesn’t change the fact that I will always be committed to helping the communities and cities I live in and play in.”Irving’s vaccination status has vexed the Nets for the entire season. He has played in only 18 of the team’s 68 games, in part because the mandate has barred him from playing home games, and he has refused to be vaccinated. Irving is allowed to play in road games where cities do not have vaccine mandates. Only Toronto, where the Raptors play, prohibits unvaccinated visiting players from competing.Irving’s limited availability has contributed to the Nets’ free-fall from one of the best teams in the N.B.A. to one fighting just to make the playoffs with 14 games left. Unless Adams changes his mind, Irving will be eligible for only four of the team’s remaining games.The downturn in positive tests nationwide and the lifting of other mandates had raised optimism within the Nets organization that Irving’s return as a full-time player was imminent. While Irving’s limitations under the mandate have received outsize attention because of his celebrity, the rule applies to New York City employees at more than 180,000 businesses, as well as other local sports teams like the Knicks.Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, told ESPN last month that he felt the rule disallowing Irving from playing in home games “doesn’t quite make sense” because opposing players who are unvaccinated are allowed to play at New York City venues. Later that day, Adams agreed with Silver, saying that the rule was “unfair,” but also that lifting the mandate would “send mixed messages.”The N.B.A. pushed for its own vaccine mandate for players before the season, but the players’ union said no.Irving’s attendance at Sunday’s nationally televised game against the Knicks created a spectacle. Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, the N.B.A.’s biggest star, weighed in on Twitter during the game, writing that the law “literally makes ABSOLUTELY ZERO SENSE!!!”He added: “They say if common sense was common then we’d all have it. Ain’t that the truth. #FreeKyrie.” More

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    Nets Fined for Letting Kyrie Irving Into Their Locker Room

    The N.B.A. fined the Brooklyn Nets $50,000 for allowing guard Kyrie Irving to enter the team’s home locker room during Sunday’s game against the Knicks. Mr. Irving has not been vaccinated against Covid-19 and thus was not allowed to be with the team at Barclays Center.Mr. Irving had attended the game as a spectator, with a seat in the front row.Under New York City law, Mr. Irving cannot play in games at Barclays Center because of a vaccine mandate for New York City-based workers who perform in-person work. While Mayor Eric Adams loosened some vaccine requirements earlier this month, he has left in place the private-sector mandate. Under the N.B.A.’s health and safety protocols, teams must follow local decrees.The Nets declined to comment.During a public appearance on Sunday, Mr. Adams responded to a heckler who urged him to let Mr. Irving play: “Listen, you’re right. Kyrie can play tomorrow: Get vaccinated.”The Nets forward Kevin Durant called the rule “ridiculous” after the game against the Knicks. He also criticized the mayor.“It just feels like, at this point now, somebody is trying to make a statement or point to flex their authority,” Mr. Durant told reporters. “Everybody out here is looking for attention. That’s what I feel like the mayor wants right now: some attention.”Minutes after the N.B.A. announced the Nets’ fine on Monday, Mr. Durant issued a statement through the Nets and softened his stance toward Mr. Adams.“The last two years have been a difficult and painful time for New Yorkers, as well as a very confusing time with the changing landscape of the rules and mandates,” the statement read. “I do appreciate the task the mayor has in front of him with all the city has been through. My frustration with the situation doesn’t change the fact that I will always be committed to helping the communities and cities I live in and play in.”Mr. Irving’s vaccination status has vexed the Nets for the entire season. He has played in only 18 of the team’s 68 games, in part because the mandate has barred him from playing home games, and he has refused to get vaccinated. Mr. Irving is allowed to play in road games where cities do not have vaccine mandates. Only Toronto, where the Raptors play, prohibits unvaccinated visiting players from competing. More

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    Djokovic Is Included in Indian Wells Draw Despite Unclear Covid Vaccination Status

    Novak Djokovic, one of the world’s most prominent sports stars to hold out against getting a coronavirus vaccination, was included in the field for this week’s Indian Wells tennis tournament in Southern California, even though there are doubts over whether he will be able to enter the United States and participate.Djokovic was deported from Australia in January after immigration officials there ruled that he was a danger to society because they said he could energize the country’s anti-vaccination movement. He was thus unable to defend his Australian Open title, which he has won a record nine times.Djokovic has expressed reluctance to be vaccinated against coronavirus, saying that he was not convinced by the science. He said the issue was more important to him than adding to the 20 Grand Slam tournaments he has won.Djokovic told Australian border officials in January that he was unvaccinated, and in recent interviews has given no indication that his status has changed.Djokovic’s name and picture appeared on a list of players in the main draw for the BNP Paribas Open, which starts on Wednesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Although not one of the sport’s four Grand Slams, the hardcourt event is considered one of the biggest tournaments in the world.Djokovic, the tournament’s second seed, has a bye in the first round, so he is not scheduled to play until Saturday.Under U.S. immigration law, people who are not citizens and also not immigrants must show proof of full vaccination as well as a negative coronavirus test to enter the country by air.Djokovic spent two years as the game’s No. 1 ranked player until February, when he slipped to No. 2.In his absence, Rafael Nadal won the Australian Open and moved one ahead of his rival as the men’s player with the most Grand Slam wins. Nadal also is listed among the players at Indian Wells, although Roger Federer, who has also won 20 Grand Slam titles, is not. More

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    ‘New Year, New Me’ Actually Might Work for the Chicago Bulls

    The Bulls reinvented themselves and have risen to the top of the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference, despite a virus outbreak and injuries that have tested them.About a month before training camp last fall, the Chicago Bulls began meeting up in their city, which would become a new home for most of them.They got together for workouts they didn’t have to do. They played five-on-five. They hung out. With only three players who had been with the team during the previous off-season, there were a lot of introductions to make.“Everybody that came here was very excited for this project to work,” said Nikola Vucevic, one of the longer-tenured members of the Bulls, having joined the team at the trade deadline in March 2021. “There was a very positive energy going into it. I think that helped a lot. Also, we had guys that were still trying to prove themselves.”Those workouts built team chemistry, and the Bulls surprised people — Vucevic included — with how quickly they started winning. And when injuries and coronavirus infections depleted their roster, they had a foundation that allowed them to adapt.This season has demanded that teams be pliable, given how the pandemic has disrupted it. A virus outbreak during a wave of the Omicron variant in December meant that the Bulls were missing 10 players at one point — and once they emerged from that setback, they began losing key players to injury. Despite all that, the Bulls (37-21) are well positioned for the run up to the playoffs after All-Star Weekend.“We’re not able to see us at our full potential since the beginning of the year,” said Zach LaVine, Chicago’s two-time All-Star guard and the longest-tenured Bull. “Even then we were working out the kinks, getting to know each other.”He added: “We’re still at the top of our conference and we’ve been doing a patch job.”Zach LaVine has been with the Bulls since the 2017-18 season.Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesThe Miami Heat, who have dealt with their own virus and injury issues, are tied with the Bulls for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. It has been more than a decade since the Bulls were truly considered contenders in the East. They have missed the playoffs for the past four seasons, and two years ago they tried to shake up their front office in hopes of changing their fortunes.They traded for Vucevic last season, and he became the first part of their remodel. Only the third-year guard Coby White and LaVine remain from the team that began last season.DeMar DeRozan became their marquee free-agent signing, a player who had been written off because of his preference for midrange jumpers over 3-pointers.The Bulls traded for Lonzo Ball in the off-season, and paid a small price — the forfeiture of a second-round draft pick — for tampering to get him. They signed Alex Caruso, who comes off the bench for a defensive jolt, in free agency as well. And they drafted Ayo Dosunmu, a Chicago native who had spent three years at the University of Illinois.Critics wondered if this group would actually work, and how.Bulls Coach Billy Donovan said the players’ time together before training camp “really helped our team.” For Vucevic that meant reconnecting with DeRozan, with whom he’d played at the University of Southern California. It meant getting to know others he’d played against in the N.B.A.“It’s one of the great things about team sports,” Vucevic said. “You meet so many people and you never know who you’re going to build friendships with.”Lonzo Ball playing against Philadelphia in November. He is currently recovering from a knee injury.Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Bulls started the season 6-1 and went on a nine-game winning streak in late December and early January after their Omicron wave had passed.Ball’s outlet passes, LaVine’s dunks and DeRozan’s buzzer-beaters were just part of the fun. Their up-tempo offense, fueled by DeRozan, LaVine and, eventually, Vucevic, was balanced by a clear defensive identity, led by guards Ball and Caruso.“They look like they’re having fun playing basketball together,” said Joakim Noah, who played for the Bulls from 2007 to 2016, including seven straight trips to the playoffs. “When you look around the league you realize you can probably count that on one hand.”Friendships might seem like a small thing on a professional sports team, but discord can derail even the most talented teams.“I think when you have a lot of guys built into the foundation as if we’re one household, one family, when you have guys going in and out it’s much easier to plug guys in,” Dosunmu said.DeRozan was out for almost two weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus in December. LaVine has missed 11 games, most of them because of a lingering knee injury, though he also played with back spasms earlier this month. Ball has been out since Jan. 15 with a knee injury.Caruso missed 13 games in December and January with a foot injury. In the second game after he returned, he fractured his wrist after a hard foul by Milwaukee’s Grayson Allen. Caruso has not played since, but he has been on the bench, helping younger players learn from what he sees.“We have a strong-minded group,” Vucevic said. “A group of fighters. When we’re going through it, we just talked about how we can’t feel sorry for ourselves because nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”They have stayed afloat by beating lesser teams, but the league’s better ones have proved a tougher challenge. So far they are winless against Miami, Milwaukee, Golden State, Philadelphia, Memphis and Phoenix. They have only two wins against teams currently in the top four in their conferences — they beat the Jazz and Cavaliers once each.“We understand that we are a good team, we are not yet at the level of the best teams, and we still have a lot of work to do,” Vucevic said, adding, “We have to wait to get full to be able to do that, but all of this is a good test for us to get to there.”After shootaround Friday at Chicago’s practice facility, Ball hopped through a drill as he worked on rehabbing his knee. Nearby, Caruso watched a scrimmage. LaVine practiced shooting free throws and then spoke to reporters.“We get healthy and we do what we’re supposed to do, I don’t see anybody better than us in the East,” LaVine said. “That’s my opinion. Competition-wise, you step on the line you go throw the ball up, I don’t think anybody’s better than us.”That night LaVine played 37 minutes and winced as he landed on his feet after a dunk. The Bulls announced Monday that he would be out until the All-Star break because of that lingering knee injury.DeMar DeRozan defending against San Antonio’s Doug McDermott in February.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated PressSince returning from his coronavirus-related absence, DeRozan has offered some consistency. He’s scored at least 35 points in the team’s last six games — losses to Phoenix and Philadelphia, followed by four wins over pesky but less-accomplished teams.After Saturday’s home win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, DeRozan spoke wistfully about what it might feel like when the Bulls are all healthy again.“It’s like a dream I dream about every night,” DeRozan said as he looked into the distance.Outside the United Center, the winter Chicago air was biting cold just a few hours before the city would be dusted with snow.“Being on a sunny beautiful island, that’s how I picture it when we get back healthy,” DeRozan said. “We’re going to get there. It sucks right now, but we got to weather it. It’s going to come.” More

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    Djokovic Willing to Miss Grand Slam Tournaments to Stay Unvaccinated

    The top men’s tennis player — for now — has expressed a desire to be “in tune” with his body that has left him badly out of tune with his sport and the times.It should not come as a revelation at this stage, but Novak Djokovic is not backing down.Not after all the drains on his energy and blows to his image. Not after twice being detained in Melbourne, Australia, last month. Not after his deportation from that country on the eve of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament. Not after being forced to watch from afar as his longtime rival Rafael Nadal took the career lead with a 21st major men’s singles title.For now, Djokovic will still not get vaccinated against the coronavirus, no matter how much it costs him, as he made clear in an interview with the BBC that was broadcast on Tuesday and in which the interviewer, Amol Rajan, summed up a fair share of the global mood by abandoning journalistic sang-froid and imploring: “Why Novak, why, why?”“Because the principles of decision-making on my body are more important than any title or anything else,” Djokovic answered. “I’m trying to be in tune with my body as much as I possibly can.”That approach has him out of tune with his sport and his times. According to the ATP, the men’s tennis tour, he is the only one of the top 100 ranked men’s singles players who has not been vaccinated against Covid-19. In an international sport that often requires players to cross borders on a weekly basis, his freedom of movement and access to tournaments will be limited depending on local pandemic restrictions.Djokovic won the 2021 French Open, but may not be allowed to play there this year.Pete Kiehart for The New York TimesThat cannot be easy for a self-described libertarian, but this is Djokovic’s choice, pure and simple, even if it resonates far beyond his personal space.Though he plans to return to action for the ATP event in Dubai next week, his status as an unvaccinated foreigner means he will not be permitted to enter the United States to take part in the top-tier tournaments next month in Indian Wells, Calif., and in Miami unless he is granted an exemption. That is considered unlikely based on the criteria, which does not include a prior coronavirus infection.Djokovic, who was infected with the coronavirus in 2020, reported testing positive again in Serbia on Dec. 16, 2021, which was the basis for his decision to travel to Melbourne for the Australian Open with what he believed to be a valid exemption from the country’s requirements for entry. Instead, he was deported after being detained and losing his final appeal, with the Australian government arguing successfully that his presence could risk promoting anti-vaccine sentiment in the country.Djokovic said he “completely disagreed” with that decision, but unless the rules in France change, Djokovic will not be allowed to play in the next Grand Slam tournament, the French Open, which begins in May. He also may not be allowed to participate in the Monte Carlo Open in April in the tax haven on the French Riviera, where he officially resides. Beginning Tuesday, the French government, which requires a vaccine passport for access to sports venues and other public facilities, will only allow a four-month grace period for those who have been infected but are unvaccinated. His grace period would expire in April.But Djokovic, still the world No. 1 in men’s singles, calmly said on Tuesday that he was ready to accept the consequences, even if it meant that it denied him the chance to win the race to be considered the greatest of all time.“That is the price I’m willing to pay,” he said.Djokovic supporters outside the Federal Court of Australia during his hearing in January.Alana Holmberg for The New York TimesIt is unclear how high that price will be. He will still have access to numerous tournaments. The men’s tour strongly encourages vaccination but has not mandated it. National regulations are shifting rapidly. Today’s closed border could be open in a few months, or even a few weeks. France has a presidential election this spring that could lead to a change in government and coronavirus policy and perhaps fling open the gates to Roland Garros.Djokovic reserves the right to change his mind on vaccination, but for now his approach does put him at a competitive disadvantage and will likely cost him the No. 1 ranking in the coming weeks as Daniil Medvedev of Russia closes in.Djokovic holds the men’s record for total weeks at No. 1 at 360 (and counting). He is the only man to have won the nine Masters 1000 events and he has won them twice. He also holds a head-to-head edge over his biggest rivals: Nadal and Roger Federer.But the overall Grand Slam record is what glitters most brightly at this stage, and Nadal has 21 major singles titles to Djokovic’s and Federer’s 20. Djokovic is the defending champion at the French Open but if he is unable to play, Nadal will be an even bigger favorite after winning it an astonishing 13 times already.Djokovic faces the shifting landscape in men’s tennis as younger players, including Daniil Medvedev, rise.Ben Solomon for The New York TimesDjokovic should have access to Wimbledon unless Britain’s coronavirus policy changes. He has been the most successful grass-court player in recent years, winning at the All England Club six times. But playing in the U.S. Open, the year’s final Grand Slam tournament, will be problematic with the United States’ ban on unvaccinated foreigners.“The United States Tennis Association and the U.S. Open will welcome all players who abide by the guidelines put forth by the U.S. government, by the City of New York and by the tournament,” said Chris Widmaier, a spokesman for the U.S.T.A., on Tuesday.Missing three of the four majors in one season would be quite a blow to Djokovic’s quest to finish atop the Grand Slam count. After being deported last month, he is also banned for three years from visiting Australia, although Australian government officials have indicated that this ban could be rescinded.Djokovic also must deal with the shifting landscape in men’s tennis. A younger generation of talented and powerful players is rising, including Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Matteo Berrettini, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Felix Auger-Aliassime.At 34, Djokovic will need to remain sharp to stay on the cutting edge but Nadal, 35, and Federer, 40, already have proven that it is possible to win majors at advanced ages for tennis.Djokovic has polarized opinion like neither of his rivals, however. Though he reaffirmed on Tuesday that he does not want to be associated with the anti-vaccine movement, his high profile and the wall-to-wall coverage of the Australian fiasco have guaranteed quite the contrary.“Because the principles of decision-making on my body are more important than any title or anything else,” Djokovic said of his reasoning.Ben Solomon for The New York Times“It’s really unfortunate there has been this kind of misconception and wrong conclusion that has been made around the world based upon something I completely disagree with,” he said.If so, it would certainly have helped if he had made that clear long ago instead of dodging the subject and questions about his vaccination status. His decision to speak with the BBC seemed an admission that his prior approach had created too much ambiguity. He talked about feeling wounded by the “looks” from his fellow players in Melbourne after he won his initial appeal and practiced on site ahead of the tournament.But then for a man who speaks six languages, Djokovic has long had a communication problem. He has a restless spirit and intellect and has sometimes been his own worst enemy: making choices that backfire, like knocking himself out of the 2020 U.S. Open by inadvertently striking a lineswoman in the throat with a ball that he had whacked in frustration.It was not the first time that Djokovic had angrily struck a ball. But though his aim and judgment have failed him rather too often, he is one of the most resilient of modern champions, emerging from wartime Serbia to break up the Federer-Nadal duopoly. He bounced back from an extended slump and a lingering elbow injury to dominate again in 2018. He rebounded from that U.S. Open misadventure in 2020 to come within one match of a true Grand Slam in 2021.He has overcome many obstacles, some of his own creation, during his long and phenomenal run atop men’s tennis, but this is new territory. To bounce back again and rejoin the historical chase, he must first be able to compete. More

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    Djokovic Is Willing to Skip Wimbledon and French Open to Avoid Vaccine

    Novak Djokovic said he was prepared to miss the French Open, Wimbledon and other tournaments if he was required to get a coronavirus vaccine to compete.In an interview with the BBC that was broadcast on Tuesday, the Serbian tennis star said he believed the freedom to choose what goes into his body was “more important than any title, or anything else.”Mr. Djokovic said he understood that his vaccination status meant that he was “unable to travel to most of the tournaments at the moment,” but, he added, “That is the price that I’m willing to pay.”Mr. Djokovic’s decision to remain unvaccinated, even after he was unable to compete in the Australian Open, may delay his quest to win more Grand Slam titles than his rivals. (The Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal was able to clinch a record 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.)The French authorities said last month that players must be vaccinated to compete in the French Open, the next of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Mr. Djokovic might be able to compete in Wimbledon in June, but according to recent guidelines, he may not be able to compete in the U.S. Open in August.Mr. Djokovic told the BBC that he was not against vaccinations generally and that he did not want to be associated with the anti-vaccination movement, but that his decision about the coronavirus vaccine was personal.“As an elite professional athlete, I’ve always carefully reviewed, assessed everything that comes in from the supplements, food, the water that I drink or sports drinks — anything, really anything that comes into my body as a fuel,” he said in the interview, which was recorded on Monday. “Based on all the informations that I got, I decided not to take the vaccine as of today.” More