Australian Open: Djokovic thankful to avoid hostile welcome, but Kyrgios sends him sprawling on Rod Laver Arena

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Novak Djokovic returned to action in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena crowd for the first time in two years, and declared: "It's great to be back."

The nine-time Australian Open champion was denied a role in last year's tournament when his vaccination status, having refused a COVID-19 jab, led to him being detained in a Melbourne immigration centre and later deported.

He was briefly released in January 2022 to practise at Melbourne Park before the tournament began, only to be effectively thrown out of the country days later.

With Australia's border controls having since been relaxed, and vaccination status no longer a condition of entry, Djokovic has had the red carpet rolled out this year, befitting his status as the most successful male singles player in the Australian Open's history.

He faced Nick Kyrgios in an exhibition match on Friday evening in Melbourne, with the stadium court sold out and the match screened on national television.

Kyrgios won 4-3 2-4 10-9, in what was a largely light-hearted encounter, a jumped-up practice session. It inevitably lacked the intensity of their last meeting, when Djokovic prevailed in four sets in the 2022 Wimbledon final.

A fierce backhand from Kyrgios in the match tie-break briefly caught out Djokovic, who was wrong-footed and volleyed out of court before slumping to the floor as though shot.

There was more than a little dramatic licence about his fall, and about the match in general, typified by the pair being joined on court by wheelchair players and a pair of leading juniors for the decisive tie-break.

The result did not matter, though it will if these two meet in the quarter-finals of the year's opening grand slam, as they might after the draw was revealed on Thursday.

Djokovic, who did not appear hampered by a recent hamstring niggle, told the crowd: "It just feels great to be back in Australia, back in Melbourne.

"This is the court and the stadium where I created the best memories of my tennis career. Back in 2008 it was the first time I won a grand slam here, and 15 years later I'm here again, and I'm competing at a high level, so I must be grateful for this opportunity to be here.

"Thank you guys for welcoming me in a good way tonight, I appreciate it."

It was a night for jollity and camaraderie, but should both reach that quarter-final date, Djokovic said: "I don't think we'll be this friendly to each other."

Kyrgios, who defended Djokovic during last year's January crisis, said of the 35-year-old Serbian: "It's so important to have him around.

"One of the greatest already left us last year, Roger [Federer], and I don't think we actually knew how special the guys are to our sport, so every time Novak's around at these events I want to beat him, even though I can't at a grand slam."

The Australian Open begins on Monday, when Djokovic facing Spain's Roberto Carballes Baena first. Djokovic is chasing a 22nd grand slam title, which would equal the men's singles record held by Rafael Nadal.

Kyrgios, yet to win a singles slam, starts against Russian Roman Safiullin.