Last week Wednesday, Novak Djokovic, nine-time winner of the Australian Open, and current defending champion, arrived at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport just after midnight, following 25 hours of flying.
Shortly after 4 a.m., Djokovic was informed by an Australian border official that they intended to revoke his visa and refuse him entry to the country—and thus commenced the first major sport controversy of 2022.
The number one-ranked tennis player in the world, Djokovic had previously never declared his inoculation status with regards to the Covid-19 vaccine, though he was known to be openly opposed to it. On January, 4 via Twitter, Djokovic had declared, “I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission.” The tweet might very well have been the one that broke the camel’s back, as it drew the ire of many Australians, 90 per cent of whom are vaccinated. After having endured many months of harsh lockdowns, Australians were angered that Djokovic was exempt from the rules and attributed this privilege to his status within the tennis world. According to Tennis Australia, the application process for securing vaccine exemption was anonymous and conducted by a qualified body. Officials noted Djokovic was among a “handful” of 26 unvaccinated people who were successful in gaining entry to the tournament.
Djokovic, who was travelling alone, should have suspected that the Australian border officials would not have welcomed him with open arms, defending champion or not, fully aware that in November 2021 the Australian Open officials had informed all players that they had to be fully vaccinated. During his interview with the immigration personnel, Djokovic duly informed them he had twice tested positive for Covid-19—in June 2020, and as recently as December 6, 2021, which meant he was medically exempt and had been given a visa. Here, Djokovic would discover that while his exemption permission may have satisfied the organisers of the tournament, it didn’t meet with the requirements set by the Australian government, which state that any non-Australian entering the country must be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The Australian border officials ignored Djokovic’s pleas to wait until 8.30 a.m. so that he could confer with his lawyers and Australian Open officials, and at 7.40 a.m. cancelled his visa and transferred him to a detention centre, pending deportation. Djokovic’s team of lawyers appealed the decision, and argued a range of legal errors—seven different grounds, in fact, including the common law principles of “procedural fairness” and “legal unreasonableness”.
On Monday, an Australian Federal Circuit Court judge set Djokovic free on the basis that the border authorities had made the wrong decision to cancel his visa. The judge ruled not on the subject of Djokovic being unvaccinated and the breaching of Australian border laws, but on the basic tenet of law that is afforded to anyone who is accused—a right of reply.
Djokovic’s visa controversy has captured global attention and generated all manner of interpretations. Belgrade quickly adopted the political angle of the mighty Australians trying to crush tiny Serbia. Legal experts were presenting their interpretations of Australian entry laws, which, of course encompasses their vaccination rules. Meanwhile, partisan sports fans evoked conspiracy theories of trying to deprive Djokovic of the opportunity for a tenth Australian Open title, and to snip the three-way tie with arch-rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, of 20 major tennis titles.
The Association of Tennis Professionals’ (ATP) take on the whole matter? In a statement, the ATP noted the series of events leading to Monday’s hearing had “been damaging on all fronts”. The release added, “More broadly, ATP continues to strongly recommend vaccination for all players on the ATP Tour, which we believe is essential for our sport to navigate the pandemic.”
How does Djokovic’s attempt to skirt the rules sit with his fellow professionals, 97 per cent (up from 50 per cent at the 2021 US Open, last September) of whom, according to the ATP, are vaccinated? When broached on the subject of the controversy, Nadal observed, “He makes his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decision, but then there are some consequences.” What if the other pros opt not to play against Djokovic, who they feel is trying to gain an edge?
As of writing, while speculation is still running rampant of how this scenario will conclude, Djokovic may not be out of the woods as yet.
“...Rules are rules and there are no special cases... (it) has been our government’s strong border protection policy particularly in relation to the pandemic that has ensured that Australia has one of the lowest death rates from Covid anywhere in the world,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared. Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke retains the power to deport Djokovic, who was quite clearly in violation of Australian border law by trying to enter Australia without being vaccinated.
Isn’t it strange that in this modern day that the world’s number one-ranked tennis player is arriving alone at midnight to play in one of the majors? No entourage. No coach. No practice partners. No agent. No support staff. Was Djokovic attempting to slip into Australia under the radar? Or was this a choreographed manoeuvre to create a political end game?
Djokovic’s supporters danced and sang in the streets of Melbourne upon his release, leaving one to speculate as to what they will do if the Australian government declares Novak Djokovic persona non grata.
Stabroek News, Guyana