Novak Djokovic, the highest ranked male tennis player in the world, will not be defending his title at the Australian Open in Melbourne as of earlier this morning (16/01). To the armchair tennis fan, this might seem surprising, as the nine-time champion would be looking to win his 21st Grand Slam to take him above Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and truly stake his claim to be the greatest of all time. However, his absence from the tournament was only confirmed after a court hearing on the day before it’s set to begin.

The Djokovic vs. Australia battle has slowly been simmering since late last year, when Australia declared that one of its conditions for entry would be full vaccination. Djokovic, however, is an ‘antivaxxer’, a fact well-known by the tennis community. To clarify, he is not a sceptic, neither is he hesitant. He is anti-vaccines, and has been proclaiming his views since 2020. In the lead-up to the new year, many puzzled over whether Djokovic would get a Covid-19 vaccine, and how he might get into the Australian Open if he didn’t. We all got our answer last week (03/01), when he posted an image on Instagram of him about to board a plane, and included in the caption were the words: “I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission”. It was at this point the pot boiled over.

To say that his social media post was not taken well by the people of Victoria would be an understatement. There was widespread outrage. It was quite frankly insulting for a tennis player to somehow side-step the system in a state that spent most of the last two years in strict lockdowns and where vaccines are practically a requirement for everyday life. Djokovic did not know what legal and political battles awaited him upon landing in Melbourne.

“[Scott] Morrison may well have wished to use this to his advantage by making an example out of Djokovic, telling both the Australian people and the world that no one can cheat the Aussie system”

After touching down the following day, Djokovic was immediately detained at the airport and questioned about both his visa status and the evidence for his medical exemption. At first it was thought that he had the wrong visa, but this was found not to be true. Djokovic was granted an exemption to play in the tournament but, confusingly, no such exemption exists to enter Australia. Or rather, the basis of his exemption, having tested positive for Covid-19 in the last six months, is not deemed a criterion for exemption by Australian border control.

The main issue with this reasoning was that two other individuals were earlier granted exemptions for the same reason as Djokovic and had already been let into the country, one being Czech player Renata Voracova who even played in a tournament before she was detained for deportation when Djokovic’s story came to light. This was where it was first posited that Djokovic’s difficult situation was in fact a political play from Australian prime minister Scott Morrison. Seeing the uproar sparked by the medical exemption, Morrison may well have wished to use this to his advantage by making an example out of Djokovic, telling both the Australian people and the world that no one can cheat the Aussie system.

With his visa cancelled, Djokovic was set to be deported. He quickly lawyered up and secured a court hearing for last Monday (10/01), where his fate would be decided. As the world number one twiddled his thumbs in an asylum hotel, the Australian government received criticism, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic jumped in to support his compatriot, and Novak’s father even called for supporters to take to the streets - something they certainly did in Melbourne.

“Some of Djokovic’s best traits on the tennis court are the same ones that make him such a difficult character off it”

At the court injunction, the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa was revoked. Judge Anthony Kelly asked: “What more could this man have done?”, and ruled that the fault was a procedural one lying with the government. The hearing, which was live-streamed to the world, revealed new information. Detained at 5:20am on Thursday (06/01), border control told him he had until 8:30am to provide more evidence for his medical exemption. Border police then cut his time short by demanding his comments at 6:14am. They made the official decision to cancel his visa at 7:42am. Judge Anthony Kelly ruled that Djokovic was treated unfairly by the border force as they clearly did not give him enough time.

It subsequently seemed like Djokovic had somehow managed to win this battle against the state of Australia without having to bend any rules, but he wasn’t home and dry just yet. Questions remained unanswered about the validity of the medical exemption. Does the six months rule actually apply? Why has Renata Voracova been deported after her visa was retroactively cancelled? The fault here does not lie with the awarding of the medical exemption, it lies with allowing Djokovic to believe that he could legally get into Australia without being fully vaccinated, as he did all he could and was made to believe it was enough. Someone outside of tennis was to blame for issuing him a visa, and not properly checking his documentation. Either Djokovic should have been let in based on the rules of his exemption, or he should never have been allowed to get on the plane.


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This midway scenario was not fair and was a failure of the system, particularly now it is seen by some as a political PR stunt. Djokovic has not covered himself in glory either after admitting that he attended public events and a L’Équipe photoshoot on the day after testing positive for Covid-19. Though he has apologised for this irresponsibility, he should not be excused for it. This was thus the major reason that his visa was cancelled for the second and final time by Australian Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke on Friday (14/01). The nine-time champion was deemed a risk to society, both due to civil unrest from dissatisfied Australians and from his irresponsible behaviour - something his lawyers couldn’t defend in court.

Some of Djokovic’s best traits on the tennis court are the same ones that make him such a difficult character off it. His resilience, stubbornness, and self-belief have led him to such incredible heights, but they have not endeared him to everyone. We can talk all day about how Novak was treated unfairly by the Australian government, but there is absolutely no excuse for not getting vaccinated in his case. He has no known contraindications, so he is not exempt from taking it. This whole ordeal that has brought his reputation to an all-time low could have been avoided if he simply chose to be vaccinated. He is possibly becoming the face of the worldwide antivax minority, something that only adds to his notoriety.

Looking to the future, what will he do for the upcoming Grand Slams in Paris, Wimbledon, and New York, some of the places in which vaccine mandates are already in place? The saga is not over yet. Prepare for Part II: Djokovic vs. Macron, coming out this May.