‘The polarisation around the Djokovic story serves as a current, cultural microcosm for how easily and quickly opposing viewpoints tend to exponentially rocket away from one another in today’s age, creating multitudinous and entirely different planes of existence, at velocity so great that any middle ground immediately ceases to exist.’
It’s been one of the biggest news stories of the year so far. After a ten day rollercoaster ride, Novak Djokovic was forced to leave Australia after judges upheld a decision by Immigration Minister, Alex Hawke, to cancel his visa on public health grounds.
For Novak the stakes couldn’t be higher. He’s chasing down a 21st major win which would set him apart from Federer and Nadal. His desire to be seen at the greatest of all time has seemingly been his biggest motivation and in many peoples eyes the total of grand slams won is a major factor in the GOAT debate. He turns 35 in May and many experts believe that the field is getting stronger and that time is against Novak to win, especially with his play style being so reliant on movement and fitness. At the US Open last year he struggled to see off multiple lower ranked opponents quickly and it seemed to cost him in the final against Medvedev where he was obviously exhausted.
For many this story came out of nowhere. For tennis fans this was the climax to months if not years of speculation. Both Australia’s strict covid travel rules and Djokovic’s strong anti vaccination stance have been well known and on a collision course for quite some time.
The ultimate decision was based on Djokovic’s presence in the country being a threat, on three separate grounds, of ‘public health’, ‘good order’, and ‘public interest’. Unfortunately for Novak it had become pretty inarguable for his lawyers. But how had it got to a position where it’s too difficult for his lawyers to argue that it’s not in public interest to deport him?
Djokovic put his line in the sand very early into the pandemic. In a zoom call with fellow professional players in April 2020 he first stated that he was anti vaccines and how he wouldn’t want to take them in order to travel. This video from Cult Tennis explores his failed Adria Tour exhibition event as well as giving good back story to the whole situation. When you mix in being photographed with fans after a positive covid test it was a close to a un-losable case for Alex Hawke.
My favourite piece of writing on the subject has been from Matthew Willis in his piece - No Winners. For me it highlights how deep the issue is and why it’s been so polarising.
‘I’ve been amazed over the last week or so watching how simple, or black and white, many people (journalists, fans, players et al) seem to think this saga is. Good vs evil. But how one views this sad and inflammatory shambles depends largely on which lens you view the situation through. If you believe governments have abused their power and overreached during this health crisis, you may view much of this situation as an authoritarian overreaction flying in the face of the most fundamental rights of individual autonomy. If you believe vaccination is the utmost priority for both individual and community health during a deadly global pandemic (especially in countries with lower seroprevalence), and that individuals during such unusual times have a ‘greater good’ responsibility to one another, you may view this as Djokovic being an entitled celebrity who refused to get vaccinated when entering another country, all for the trivial privilege to hit a fuzzy yellow ball around a rectangle. If you’re an adult from Serbia, or from a number of countries affected by the Yugoslav wars and resulting sanctions, and have experienced horrible immigration experiences first hand, and you see the most powerful and idolised among you in Novak Djokovic still suffering, you may feel defeated in the face of inarguable flaws in border control and wider immigration unfairness. If you live in a country which has suffered extremely strict lockdowns and self-isolation rules, perhaps you’ve missed weddings or funerals because of testing positive and having to isolate, then you may see Djokovic swanning around Belgrade last month doing a photoshoot while knowingly COVID positive as unforgivable behaviour. If you’re an Australian or Kiwi and have seen family members recently locked out of their own country because of strict immigration and COVID rules, and you watch a tennis player walk in on a medical exemption which was designed for those unable, rather than unwilling, to be vaccinated, you may see it as special treatment and an undermining of your home country. If you’re from a nation like Australia, or any that have had especially strict rules around COVID, and you feel that the rules have been too catch-all for the population and that government policy has often harmfully lagged contrasting epidemiological data around topics like community spread differences between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, then you may view this as an unnecessary political stunt which flew in the face of up-to-date science. If you watched what the refugees in Djokovic’s detention hotel, some of whom have been there for thousands of days, have gone through then you may either feel that Djokovic’s problems are wee and privileged in comparison, and that the fuss around a tennis player is nonsensical, or that this entire saga reveals foundationally broken rules about who can travel where in this world. If you’ve personally experienced the toll of the various anti-vaccination movements, you may see this entire situation as an irredeemably sad consequence of misinformation. If you’re a parent of kids who have found the pandemic developmentally stunting, or even an emotionally or physically damaging experience, you may be wondering whether the risk analysis of the COVID policy that underpins most governments, including the Djokovic saga, is completely miscalculated. I labour the point here intentionally and yet still leave out many perspectives.’ - Matthew Willis.
Djokovic has suffered huge reputational damage while also being unwittingly used and co-opted by multiple extremist movements who care more about their selfish goals than his wellbeing. One of the four most important events in tennis, and its leader, face significant questions around their competence, motivations and behaviour, all in the midst of potentially existential financial concerns on the back of COVID. Whatever lens you see this through it feels as though this story isn’t going anywhere quickly. Novak Djokovic could be barred from playing in the French Open as things stand now after the Sports Ministry said there would be no exemption from France's new vaccine pass law. It’s expected more countries and therefore tournaments will follow suit, potentially including the US Open.