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Novak Djokovic has spent his career trying to curry favor with the public. He’s earned an A for effort—until now
The 20-time Grand Slam champion has crossed a clear line in the sand.
Published Jan 07, 2022
Tennis Channel Live: Djokovic's dilemma
Novak Djokovic may not know it, but he’s already lost at the 2022 Australian Open.
As you read this, he may be on a plane heading home, or to some other destination far from the pro tennis action in Melbourne because he was denied entry into the country by the Australian Border Force (the equivalent of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services). Djokovic received an exemption from the state of Victoria to compete in the first Grand Slam of the season despite not being vaccinated for COVID-19, but the ABF rejected his claim for exemption.
Djokovic and his lawyers immediately appealed the decision, but he’s now seen as such a pariah that it’s impossible to imagine him surviving the distractions to win the tournament. You think Aussies are easygoing, friendly, forever grinning and shouting “G’Day mate!” or “No worries!”? Just wait to see what happens if Djokovic ends up competing in Melbourne Park.
An honorary Aussie hero (his nine titles Down Under are unequaled), this epochal talent has been transformed into a widely detested symbol of arrogance and entitlement. And to think that just four months ago, Djokovic sat on a changeover in Arthur Ashe stadium, crying and trembling—not because Daniil Medvedev was about to halt his drive for a historic, calendar-year Grand Slam, but because he finally sensed “love” flowing from the tough New York crowd.
Djokovic may never feel support, much less love, again in Melbourne. After enduring the most Draconian lockdown of the pandemic, and now seeing another bout of COVID-19 infections on the horizon, Melbournians are in no mood to embrace an athlete who has spoken out against vaccination, refused to get vaccinated himself, yet found a way—enabled by prominent tennis officials—to dodge the vaccination mandate.
Like many a celebrity, Djokovic has grown accustomed to special treatment. Never beloved the way Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are in the world at large, Djokovic has spent almost as much time trying to curry favor with the public as he has winning his 20 majors. For that, he’s earned an A for effort—until now. The Serbian star’s refusal even to explain why he shuns vaccination, or to come clean about why he deserves a special exemption (besides the fact that he’s Novak Djokovic) has crossed a clear line in the sand.
“A kick in the gut to every Victorian,” David Southwick, the deputy Liberal leader of Victoria tweeted.
Retired Australian Football League great Kevin Bartlett said on Twitter that the public had been “taken for fools.”
“I think it might get ugly,” Rod Laver, the much-revered gentleman and champion whose name adorns the main stadium at the Australian Open, told the Herald-Sun newspaper.
This saga is only superficially about vaccine mandates, individual liberty, the specter of Big Government, or even the election-year politicking some saw in the 11th-hour decision to challenge Djokovic’s entry into Oz. At heart it’s a tale of privilege, hauteur, a public person’s callous indifference to the notion of accountability—and actions that have earned Djokovic a place in the Tone-Deaf Hall of Fame.
Let’s pick up the story with Djokovic’s Instagram post of Tuesday.
His message began with a familiar, treacly invocation for “everybody” to “feel love and respect toward all beings on this wonderful planet.” Then it quickly segued into the news that Djokovic was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission.”
To many, that looked like spiking the football.
The pushback was immediate, and intense. Djokovic might have survived the first wave of rubbishing if he divulged the reason for his exemption, but apparently that kind of transparency is for lesser personages. While neither Djokovic nor his roster of enablers, led by Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, said a word, Laver did: “Yes, you’re a great player and you’ve performed and won so many tournaments, so, it (the reason for the exemption) can’t be physical. So what is the problem?”
That simple question continues to resonate.
Laver, plain-spoken and true to his country roots (he learned the game on a court made of compressed dung) stands out as the voice of reason in a story where most of the prominent characters seem either Machivallean or barking mad.
I think it might get ugly. Rod Laver
Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia and Director of the Australian Open, is an uber-aggressive, ambitious individual who has presided over the tournament’s rapid rise to prominence. He’s succeeded partly because he learned early on that pandering to the players’ every need and whim is a winning strategy. Can anyone doubt that Tiley and Djokovic conferred when it became clear that a vaccine mandate was in the offing?
It’s also certain that coming up with exemptions to the mandate gave Tiley and Djokovic some much-needed wiggle room in Victoria—but only until the ABF determined that Djokovic did not demonstrate sufficient reason for exemption. Still, Djokovic and Tiley would have eaten their cake and had it, too, but for the fact that the Serbian arrived in Melbourne with the wrong visa, which rightly triggered the ABF’s demand for details of the star’s claim to exemption.
Some of tennis’ most significant controversies (the 1979 US Open Monday Night Massacre, featuring John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase, comes to mind) quickly degenerate from high drama to farce, and so this one went.
The ABF detained Djokovic in a government hotel as the process played out, with his father Srdjan charing that Novak was being kept “in captivity.” He proclaimed his son “the Spartacus of the new world” (it is unclear what “new” world he was talking about), and accused the Australians of “stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia and the Serbian people.”
"They are keeping him as a prisoner,” Djokovic’s mother Djana erroneously lamented. ”That's not human and it's not fair."
The detention, however, may give Djokovic a tiny taste of what Melbournians went through during their prolonged lockdowns.
Djokovic is regarded as a national treasure by his countrymen, so it was hardly surprising that even Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic felt compelled to join the fracas. He took to Twitter to decry the Australian government for harassment, and let his citizens know that he had spoken to Djokovic. Vucic told Serbian media, "We're doing all we can. This persecution is unfair, starting with the Australian prime minister (Scott Morrison)."
Vucic ended up with egg on his face. In a televised news briefing, Morrison said: "There are no special cases, rules are rules. We will continue to make the right decisions when it comes to securing Australian borders in relation to this pandemic."
There will be other opportunities for Djokovic to win the Australian Open and extend his claim to historic tennis supremacy. But right now the GOAT looks more like the goat.