Unpacking the incredibly stupid Novak Djokovic fiasco in 10 easy steps
If you believe that the universe would like to prevent Novak Djokovic from winning his record-breaking 21st grand slam—he's currently tied with Roger and Rafa at 20—then you must concede that the gods have chosen Australia as their agent early in 2022. The Aussie government has seemed hellbent on preventing him from playing in this year's Australian Open, set to begin a week from today, and for a long time it seemed like they would win. But the Djoker is known for pulling off stunning upsets at the last possible moment—just ask Roger Federer, in every grand slam—and once again, he seems to have fought back from match point to stand on the precipice of victory.
So what the hell happened? You can be forgiven if you've chosen not to pay attention, but find yourself curious a few days before major season begins. As a little challenge, let's see if we can summarize this very stupid saga in 10 easy steps.
1. Novak Djokovic, the greatest tennis player in the history of humanity (as declared two years ago by me), is not vaccinated. If you know anything about Djokovic off the court, this should come as no surprise, because the dude has some wacky medical beliefs. Just to pick a wild example, he believes a positive attitude can transform water on the molecular level—sure, read that a few times—and lately a tweet has been making the rounds that we can only refer to as the bread story:
In short, he's exactly the kind of dude who would believe the worst things about the vaccine—his wife actually shared an Instagram video blaming the virus on 5G networks, which I guess is a step up from thinking that the vax actually injects 5G into your bloodstream—and if you had to bet on one human on earth not getting the shot, it's him. He spent months refusing to say if he was vaccinated, which is athlete code for "definitely not," but the current saga confirmed that he's foot loose and vaxxy free.
2. He's had a weird couple years. In the process of playing sublime tennis that erases any doubt that he's the greatest we've ever seen, he also wacked at a ball at a line judge's throat (getting kicked out of the U.S. Open in the process, which he almost certainly would have won), held an ill-advised tennis exhibition just as COVID broke out which resulted in a bunch of people getting COVID, himself included, and all the stuff mentioned above. He may be the least-loved GOAT in any sport, ever, although his diehards still really, really love him. (If you don't believe me, just check my Twitter mentions after this post goes live.)
3. Which brings us to Australia. Djokovic managed to get a vaccine exemption from Tennis Australia, which we later found out was based on a positive test for the virus from mid-December, and he flew into Melbourne last Wednesday fully expecting to play. How does that exemption make sense? Well, by the time he applied for it, he hadn't had any symptoms in 72 hours, and his lawyers claimed that an infection within the past six months should exempt him based on policies laid out by the country's immunization advisory body. Tennis Australia obviously agreed.
4. NOT SO FAST, said the Aussie government. Upon arriving in Melbourne, Djokovic was detained for eight hours, at which point the Australian Border Force canceled his visa, saying he hadn't shown the requisite proof for an exemption. He wasn't the only one; at least two other players underwent the exact same process, but they seem to have left the country without argument. The problem, according to sources, was that Djokovic didn't really provide any evidence that he had been infected beyond the word of one doctor. All of which led to Australia's Deputy Prime Minister saying that if he lied, he should face serious consequences, and that, "You can't just wander around the world thinking that because you're really rich you're really above the laws of other nations."
5. Djokovic's lawyers filed an appeal, which was set for Monday, and in the meantime he was allowed to quarantine in a nearby hotel. As the days passed, his family made claims that he was being held prisoner, while his father Srdjan...well, he went to another level with his remarks:
"They’re keeping him in captivity. They’re stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia and Serbian people...Morrison [the Aussie PM] and his like have dared attack Novak to bring Serbia to its knees. Serbia has always shown that he comes from a proud nation. This has nothing to do with sports, this is a political agenda. Novak is the best player and the best athlete in the world, but several hundred million people from the West can’t stomach that."
He ended that tirade—I kid you not—with these words:
"We are humans, and you, sir, are not. Jesus was crucified on the cross … but he is still alive among us. They are trying to crucify and belittle Novak and throw him to his knees.”
6. It's probably worth a quick word here about Australia and the coronavirus for context. To make a long story short, they are very strict, and it shows in the numbers; since the pandemic began, they've had 2,387 deaths due to COVID-19 with fewer than one million cases. The U.S., for comparison's sake, has seen roughly 60 million cases and 836,000 deaths. (America is also 10 times more populous, but even accounting for that, it's a whole different ballgame.) There are selective mandates, and 83% of citizens over 16 are vaccinated. You get the picture: The Aussie government takes its lockdowns very seriously, and is very much not keen on letting unvaccinated people into the country. The Djokovic situation quickly became a broader political issue, on which the Prime Minister and other major figures became publicly involved.
7. Prior to the hearing, the government filed paperwork arguing that they had never granted Djokovic an exemption, and that despite a positive assessment from the Department of Home Affairs, there was no "assurance" of entry. In other words, visa requirements and entry requirements are different, and Djokovic didn't satisfy the latter. They retained the right to question and reject him upon arrival, and again, they argued there was no evidence of major medical illness. (Not to defend Djokovic, but, uh...maybe have this conversation with him before he flies to Melbourne? ALTHOUGH, it does seem possible that Djokovic flew in with the intent of making the situation as public as possible, hoping it would increase public pressure to let him play.)
8. On Monday, a huge twist: An Australian federal circuit judge heard Djokovic's appeal, determined that he had been treated unfairly, and ordered him released from detention. “The point I’m somewhat agitated about is, what more could this man have done?” the judge asked at one point. A big part of the problem was that Djokovic hadn't been allowed to speak to authorities at Tennis Australia despite a promise from border officials, and the medical exemption from his doctor. In the hours since that judgment, Djokovic has already been seen practicing at Rod Laver Arena, his family has held celebratory press conferences, and it's all significantly embarrassing for Scott Morrison, the PM. Everything got a little worse when Djokovic supporters mobbed what they thought was his car, and were pepper sprayed by police:
9. The government's counter-argument was that people with a major medical illness should be vaccinated upon recovery, and that Djokovic had clearly recovered. Also, he appeared at a livestreamed public event the day he allegedly tested positive, and was mask-less at an awards ceremony the next day. All of which means that the immigration minister could still cancel his visa, which would ban him from the country for three years. This ain't over yet!
10. All in all, the whole thing is a dog's breakfast. That's a quote used in the Times story by a Sydney law professor, and while I've never heard it before, I find it both delightful and accurate. It's embarrassing for Australia, potentially disastrous for a Prime Minister facing a re-election campaign, and pretty bad for Camp Djokovic too, who are following a typical pattern by managing to look worse and worse while continuing to win. All in all, it's a perfect story to kick off 2022. Welcome to another bizarre year of sports in the time of COVID.