As one of the most extraordinary days in the history of professional tennis finally came to an end, uncertainty still reigned. Novak Djokovic had started Thursday at the beginning of what would eventually become about 10 hours of waiting and questioning at passport control in Tullamarine airport in Melbourne, before his visa was cancelled and deportation loomed.
He ended the day alone in an immigration hotel in Carlton. According to reports from Serbia, Djokovic’s futile hopes of leaving the hotel to join his team were quashed, his only company the insects and the bugs beside him in his room. Outside, his fans gathered to brandish their Serbian flags and sing Balkan folk songs into the night.
It is still unclear where Djokovic goes from here. He has appealed against the federal government’s ruling on his visa and he will remain in Melbourne until Monday at least, the day of his hearing, with the hope of putting this case behind him. But even if he is able to overturn the ruling and compete for his 10th Australian Open title, this has been an unwanted, emotionally draining episode that has helped nobody and has reflected terribly on all involved.
On the court, Djokovic continues to pull off magical feats. Last season, every single grand slam tournament seemed to yield a new all-time record, from clinching the record number of weeks at No 1 to the astounding feat of securing every grand slam tournament and Masters 1000 event at least twice. He is the men’s player of the last 10 years by a mile.
Yet his breathless ability on the court is paired with his frequent tendency to self-sabotage. It is often said about the best players that their greatest opponents are themselves but Djokovic takes it to new levels.
He chases history and a record-setting 21 grand slam titles, yet he is so taken by alternative science that he was willing to complicate his chances by arriving unvaccinated at one of the world’s strictest borders. It is hubris and it is the single-minded self-belief that drives his tennis but that also so often leads him astray.
Supporters of Novak Djokovic gather in the streets in Melbourne to protest. Photograph: Diego Fedele/Getty Images
The decisions he makes highlight the necessity of having the right people around giving wise counsel. It is particularly notable that while Djokovic remained stuck at the border, members of his team strolled into Melbourne. The absurdity of this whole affair was dissected by, of all people, Rafael Nadal. “I think if he wanted, he would be playing here in Australia without a problem,” he said, shrugging.
It seems unlikely that Djokovic will look at this episode as an opportunity to grow. More often than not, the injustices that Djokovic is perceived to have suffered have the opposite effect, only strengthening his resolve and reaffirming the belief that he is one man up against the world.
No matter how this plays out, this incident is merely setting the tone for the seasons to come. On the same day that Djokovic was flying towards his fate in Melbourne, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, was controversially revealing his plan to “piss off” unvaccinated citizens. The French Open is, incidentally, the next grand slam, and it is likely that more vaccine mandates are to come for the travelling group of tennis players, with more decisions for Djokovic and others to make as a result.
While Djokovic continues to receive scorn, all entities involved are deserving of criticism. Over the past few years it has become standard to see Craig Tiley, Tennis Australia’s chief executive, appear on TV to smooth over controversy and promote the top players. Indeed, at the same time as Djokovic was flying into Melbourne, Tiley was front and centre reassuring the public of the robustness of the medical panels that decided who received exemptions. Since the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa, Tiley has been conspicuous in his absence from the airwaves.
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Tiley’s silence reflects the undeniable failures of Tennis Australia and the Victorian government, those medical exemptions allowing Djokovic to enter the tournament but having no effect on federal border policy once he arrived there.
Tiley revealed that of 26 applicants only a “handful” of exemptions were granted, some of which are now reportedly being examined more closely.
The failures of Tennis Australia and the Victoria government do not absolve the federal government and the bickering between state and federal entities that has defined this situation. One day before Djokovic arrived in Australia, the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, was asked in a press conference about Djokovic’s imminent arrival; he described it as an issue for Victoria state.
A day later he swiftly changed his tune. It could reasonably be concluded that it wasn’t until then that he realised the political points to be scored from being seen to act decisively.
Shortly after Djokovic’s visa had been cancelled, Morrison said: “Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules.”
Ironically, one positive aspect of the incident is the increased attention on Morrison’s cruel border policies. Even if he is banished from the country, Djokovic will ultimately be fine. He has the resources and profile to seek out representatives when most would have been on the first flight home.
There are 36 refugees at Djokovic’s Park hotel. Some have been stuck in the hotel for eight years and have been treated abhorrently by the state ever since. They deserve the attention and compassion that Djokovic’s brief stay among them is generating.