Orin Gordon

The Australian Open tennis tournament has started in Melbourne. The defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic had been expected to play his first-round match yesterday, but instead started his Monday by sneaking out of the diplomatic exit at Nikola Tesla international airport 9,000 miles away in his native Serbia—to avoid the media’s cameras and questions.

Djokovic’s expulsion from Australia after the cancellation of his visa was a deserved defeat for the best tennis player in the men’s game, perhaps the best of all time. Let’s get one thing straight. He followed the medical exemption path smoothed for him by a feckless and cynical Tennis Australia, whose main concern seemed to be the ratings and money that he’d bring to the tournament.

Australia has strict Covid-19 public health rules, even for its citizens. The list of people who had been barred from seeing, hugging and even attending the funeral of relatives is long. The containment methods have worked. In a country of 25 million, only 2,692 people have died of the virus. As of Sunday, the number of Covid-19 dead in Trinidad and Tobago—a country with one-twentieth of Australia’s population—was 3,197.

In early December it looked as if Djokovic would have a hard time entering Australia, let alone being able to play in one of the four most prestigious tournaments in the game. Even one of the most decorated tennis players in history couldn’t be sure of defending his title. But in a process engineered by Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley, he got a medical exemption on the basis of testing positive for Covid-19 on December 16.

I’ve no reason to doubt that it was legit, but between December 16 and 18 when he stuck to his public engagement schedule (including one mask-less in a room full of children), Novak behaved like a man who didn’t have Covid-19 and didn’t need to isolate. Illness is bad for everyone; but that turned out to be a well-timed bout of Covid.

Tiley, who’d become a good friend of the player from his long association with the tournament and success in it, set up medical panels to undertake what he said were anonymous reviews of Djokovic’s case for an exemption. He got through.

Many Australians—particularly in Melbourne and the state of Victoria —fumed that a rich, celebrity foreign athlete who was unvaccinated could so easily circumvent their tough travel regulations. Even fully vaccinated citizens had to put up with them. Djokovic’s entry into the country 13 days ago was unpopular.

The federal government in Canberra felt the public opposition, and was determined to make him leave. Two court rulings and two visa cancellations later, they did. In the end, he made things easier for them by entering false information about prior travel in his visa application. Not for the first time, the wealthy boss blamed a lowly assistant for the error.

Everyone in this drama acted in their own self-interest; but in the second court hearing, the government cited the public interest in not allowing Djokovic to stay. They didn’t want to create an anti-vaxxer cause célèbre that could hurt vaccine uptake. There had to be some political calculation.

A high-profile visitor doing a workaround of their strict public health rules that required non-nationals entering the country to be fully vaccinated, made for damaging optics. Plus, they were taking hits on the issue from their political opponents.

The medical exemption process is legal. But Alex Hawke—Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, to give him his full title—has considerable power, including the power to cancel visas. Therein lay the playing field for lawyers.

The government won, but Aussies must ask themselves how Djokovic’s lawyers managed to get two legal hearings in ten days, when there are people who’ve been in immigration detention for ten years. Rich man’s justice—conveniently dispensed in sync with Djokovic’s match schedule —does not reflect well on the country.

Tennis Australia isn’t the only sports body that has taken a self-serving approach to Covid-19. The Brooklyn Nets of the US’s National Basketball Association walked back their earlier decision to sit their loudly unvaccinated star player Kyrie Irving for the whole season. Under New York public health laws, Irving is not allowed to participate in team sports there. He can’t play in home games at the Barclays Center, but he can play in other arenas in other US cities that have less strict regulations.

The Nets said at the start of the season in October that they cannot have Irving as a half-a-season player. Three months into the grind of an NBA season in which their main man Kevin Durant is being overworked, they’ve backtracked. He’ll play only away games. Winning is more important.

The NBA itself, faced with an explosion of Covid-19 cases among players and coaching staff just before Christmas, decided against the medically responsible step of cancelling games. The show must go on, even if teams had to hire fringe, semi-retired players to hardship contracts of barely a week. The new five-days-only isolation guidelines from the Centre for Diseases Control has been criticised by doctors as being inadequate and sending mixed signals. It was predictable that the NBA would leap on it. Players can be back on court in a sport with a lot of physical contact, in a much shorter space of time than before.

Money really does talk.

The author is a media

consultant, at oringordon.com

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