Novax Djokovic

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Ronán Daly looks back on the debacle that has seen tennis world number 1, Novak Djokovic, miss out on this years Australian open and chance to take the record the number of grand slam victories

Tied on 20 grand slams with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, world number 1 Novak Djokovic was ready to challenge for his 21st and record-breaking tennis Grand Slam title at this year’s Australian open. The favourite heading into the tournament he would have been hoping to find himself in the news for all the right reasons by breaking that tie with Nadal and Federer. Instead, he finds himself at home in Serbia, unable to compete in the tournament after being deported from Australia.

The main issue with Djokovic was his unvaccinated status, Australia’s current immigration laws allow for unvaccinated people to enter the country if they can show a valid medical exemption. Australian PM, Scott Morrison stated before Djokovic landed in the country that he would only be allowed to do so if he had an exemption and if the exemption was valid. Nonetheless, Djokovic travelled to Australia and caused a saga which has gripped the sporting world for the last week.

Djokovic landed in Australia on January 5th before being detained for 4 nights in an immigration detainment hotel which is mainly used for holding asylum seekers with the Australian government denying the validity of the exemption. He claimed the exemption was valid on the grounds he had been infected with covid in December and therefore had natural immunity to it and originally had the decision to cancel his visa overturned and was subsequently drawn in the first round of the Australian open. Australian immigration minister, Alex Hawke, then decided to use personal powers to cancel the Serbs visa once again. Djokovic appealed the decision but this time the courts upheld Hawke’s decision as it felt the immigration minister did not act outside his powers.

The Djokovic saga has been incredibly unfortunate and one which no one has come out of looking particularly well and has been unsurprisingly politicised. Australia’s government has been labelled as “Authoritarian” by the Right, most notably former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. One of the more bizarre tangents of the saga was Farage flying out to Serbia to meet with the Djokovic family. Upon the decision of the courts to deport Djokovic, Farage stated his disappointment, that he believed people should have the freedom of choice. One of the big issues with this case is that an exemption for travel can be granted if the person had covid within the previous 6 months which was the case for Djokovic.

However, on his immigration form Djokovic had failed to mention that he didn’t isolate immediately upon learning he had covid and had stated that he not travelled within 14 days before his flight to Australia despite the fact he had between Spain and Serbia during that time. Djokovic admitted that there were errors on his travel form but claims it was not deliberate. During his appeal in court Djokovic’s lawyers called into question the fact that the Australian government partly rationalised the decision to deport him by saying his presence in the country would stir up anti-vax protesters, saying that his deportation would be more likely to cause this. It’s not an invalid point, if Djokovic had been let into Australia and was allowed compete in the tournament there would not have been this kind of reaction and it wouldn’t have rallied right-wingers like Farage and anti-vaxxers. The Australians handling of the situation was undoubtedly questionable but even this valid point by Djokovic and his team doesn’t change the fact that the Serb is anti-vax and wasn’t going to be vaccinated for this tournament anyway.

Djokovic is openly anti-vax and likely would have tried to compete in the tournament even without the medical exemption from contracting covid in December. This is not the first time the world number 1 has had the virus, having it first in June of 2020 when he along 3 other players tested positive from an event which he organised called the ‘Adria Tour’. The tour was criticised for its lack of social distancing and the fact it was played in front of full crowds during the height of the original global wave of Covid-19.  

The situation should also be understood in the context of Australia’s pandemic, Melbourne, where the tournament is being played, had the longest lockdown in the world at a cumulative 262 days since March 2020. Australia is only now coming out of lockdown because vaccine uptake had originally been slow, and the ordinary people of Australia have sacrificed a lot throughout the pandemic to get to where they are now. Australian F1 star Daniel Ricciardo has been open this year about being homesick, not being able to travel home during non-race weeks on the calendar as he usually would because of the countries quarantine rules. Whether you agree with lockdowns and vaccine mandates or not if the regular people of Australia and its own sports stars can make concessions and sacrifices then surely those who are visiting the country to compete there like Djokovic should be held to the same standards.

If you agree with Australia’s border control policies for covid or not Djokovic shouldn’t get any special treatment because of who he is. The message from Djokovic camp throughout the pandemic has been that there should be a freedom of choice and while Djokovic is entitled to remain unvaccinated the consequences of that decision are his to bare. Even if he hadn’t contracted covid in December it’s unlikely that he would have taken the vaccine to compete in Australia and with the record Grand Slam title at stake there’s every chance he still would have tried to do the same thing. Australia has its rules, and they should apply to everyone, being an elite level athlete shouldn’t grant you special treatment and the Serb could have isolated and restricted his movements upon testing positive for covid, which he didn’t.

Djokovic now faces the prospect of missing another opportunity at the record as France has passed new covid pass laws that require vaccine passes for public spaces and their sports minister has confirmed there will be no exception for athletes. With fellow record holder Rafael Nadal winning 13 of his 20 Grand Slam titles on the clay in France Djokovic could well see himself fall behind the Spaniard. Djokovic has always been a polarising character and this saga has only heightened this as the Serb has become further adopted by the anti-vax movement.