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From Quixotic to Kafkaesque: Where we stand one week into the standoff between Novak Djokovic and the Australian government
The world No. 1 continues to tilt at medical windmills, even as he has become ensnared in a bewildering bureaucratic cul de sac.
Published Jan 14, 2022
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Have you had enough of waking up in the middle of the night, reaching out in the dark for your phone, blearily searching for “Alex Hawke minister” on Twitter, and then scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling some more?
If so, you likely speak for most tennis fans in the Western part of the world right now. Finally, early Friday morning U.S. time, those scrolls happened upon some news: Hawke, Australia’s Minister for Immigration, had decided to deport Novak Djokovic for a second time in the past week. And Djokovic had decided to appeal that decision for a second time.
The appeal is set for Sunday, one day before Djokovic is scheduled to play his first-round match at the Australian Open. If that sounds like it should be the end of the saga one way or another, think again. According to at least one source Down Under, if Djokovic wins this appeal, Hawke would still be within his rights to deport him for a third time, for a different reason of his choosing. What that would do to the year’s first major is anyone’s guess.
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A week ago, when Djokovic had his first encounter with the Australian Border Force in Melbourne, his father Srdjan claimed he was a new Spartacus, “a leader of the libertarian world.” By now, a more appropriate reference might be Don Quixote—if he had wandered into a Kafka novel: Djokovic continues to tilt at medical windmills, even as he has become ensnared in a bewildering bureaucratic cul de sac.
A hero has yet to emerge in this tale. Djokovic has been widely tarred as selfish; Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley as too eager, and willing to cut corners, to insure that a star player is part of his event; and the Australian government, all the way up to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as ham-handed and heavy-handed in its treatment of Djokovic. I’d say all of those assessments are accurate. The story has also served to highlight the government’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers, which might be its one, grim silver lining.
At first, Djokovic’s COVID-19 exemption was seen as an example of a superstar getting special treatment, even at the expense of public health. And that’s still part of the narrative. But it has also turned into an international pandemic flashpoint, a microcosm of the battle lines that the fight against the virus has helped draw, and the wrong-headed rebellion against public-health measures that star athletes like Djokovic, Aaron Rodgers and Kyrie Irving have helped stir up.
“Now it is Djokovic who stands as a symbol, both as a system-fighter and as a system-fighter for the wrong reasons,” ESPN’s Howard Bryant writes. “…While he, Rodgers and many of sports’ most prominent performers shrug along, masters of their universe, the behavior is theirs, but it should not be forgotten that reckless populism is largely responsible for creating the global disaster from which we cannot emerge.”
For Dave Zirin at The Nation, the episode is proof that neither Djokovic-style libertarianism, nor Australian nationalism, is the right approach.
“Putting up walls and sticking soldiers with guns on the border makes for a good photo op, but it’s garbage as health policy,” Zirin writes. “…Until the nations that hold a monopoly on vaccines share their intellectual and scientific data with everyone, we are going to be mired in disease.”
There is no wall high enough to stop a virus. But Djokovic isn’t here to point out the racism and injustice of detaining asylum seekers indefinitely. And he is certainly not using his money and influence to try to end medical imperialism and vaccinate the world. Instead, he has shown himself to be nothing but petulant and profoundly selfish. This is one of those stories that highlights just how awful the terms of the political debate on Covid-19 and vaccinations are and the crying need to reframe these debates. Neither side in this battle has an internationalist or humanistic perspective.
I disagree with Djokovic’s vaccine stance, and as he admits, he never should have done an interview and photo shoot knowing that he has tested positive for COVID-19 last month. At the same time, he has donated a significant amount of money for ventilators in Italy and hospitals in Serbia, and for bushfire relief in Australia two years ago. There also doesn’t seem to me to be anything selfish about his attempt to create a union among tennis players.
Hawke cited “good order” and the “public interest” as reasons to deport Djokovic, and I’m not going to argue against that—though banning him from the country for three years would be overkill. Right now, it’s hard to shake the idea that he was rewarded for not being vaccinated, because that made it easier to get the positive COVID-19 test that gave him the exemption (not I think he contracted it intentionally). I also wonder where we would be if everyone in the world made the same “personal choice” not to be vaccinated that Djokovic has. Would there still be Grand Slam tournaments for him to play, fans in the stands to watch him, sponsors to pay him, records for him to break?
Knowing this story, there will likely be a new, Kafkaesque twist to it on Sunday—and maybe Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week as well. Until then, enjoy your midnight scrolling.