Novak Djokovic almost pulled off a feat even more impressive than claiming 10 Australian Open titles. He single-handedly came close to turning a tournament that pridefully calls itself the “Happy Slam” into the “Miserable Major.” The contortions Djokovic went through to avoid the tournament’s vaccine mandate, and the protracted legal battle that ensued, left a trail of confusion, anger and bitterness that ruined the run-up to the event.

By the time he was booted out of Oz, the nine-time champ did significant damage to the tournament, largely because of his hubris, along with ill-conceived and sloppily executed maneuvers to take part in the event via an exemption. How did the Aussies, who have labored under some of the pandemic’s most draconian lockdowns anywhere, take all this? A poll asking if Djokovic ought to have been granted an exemption to participate, conducted by the Herald-Sun newspaper, attracted almost 17,000 responses with a whopping 92 percent opposed granting Djokovic the exemption.

But Djokovic seemed unable to read the handwriting on the wall any more than he was capable of owning the trail of boneheaded decisions and ghastly miscalculations that led to his downfall.

To the end, Djokovic acted like a man wronged, rather than what he turned out to be—a man wronging a nation that had suffered tremendously due to COVID-19. As columnist Malcolm Knox of The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, wrote in an assessment of Djokovic and his main enabler, AO tournament director Craig Tiley:

“For all the door-opening, the facilitating, the massaging of time slots and court locations, for all the super-VIP treatment, did Djokovic owe Tiley and the Australian Open something in return? Like getting vaccinated? Like understanding the consequences of trying to get into Australia on a tenuous basis? Or if not, like turning around and leaving Australia of his own free will, not because he thought it was fair or right, but because the reputation of the tournament that has given him nine trophies might benefit from it?”

No, Djokovic clearly was too busy working on what he thought was owed to him at the junction of hubris, entitlement, and perhaps even delusion.


Tennis Channel Live: Novak Djokovic leaves Australia—before the Australian Open


We’re living at a time when no law, rule or social convention goes unchallenged, often leaving a great hunger for clarity and rules—or at least rules that are applied fairly. If there’s any upside in this case, it may be that in the little fiefdom of tennis some of that hunger has been alleviated. The decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa was not merely justified, it was fair and clearly based on rules.

A number of those smoke grenades were let off during this past two weeks. Some saw “politics,” including election politics, influencing this saga. Well, if listening to the heartbeat of the public and taking its temperature into account can be considered political, so be it. Some political operatives scored cheap points due to some confusion and overlapping jurisdictions in the Australian government. But the rules governing visa applications, Australian entry requirements, and the powers of those who enforce those rules are spelled out, crystal clear. While amusing to those who prefer the sport, politics was not relevant here.

Another source of white noise: The idea that this brouhaha was somehow about “freedom,” or “individual rights.” Nobody tried to keep Djokovic from competing in the Australian Open, provided he accepted the rules governing entry. Nobody denied Djokovic’s right to avoid vaccination, or even taking a public anti-vax stance. All he was denied was the right to ignore or get around the basic rules for visiting Australia and the standout condition for participating in the first Grand Slam of the year: being vaccinated for COVID-19.

Then, predictably, various people played the “persecution of Serbia” card. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic jumped on Twitter to decry the Aussies for “harassment” and promised Serbian media that the government would do all that it could to help Djokovic. That turned out to be no more than Australian prime minister Scott Morrison might have accomplished had he tried to intercede in Serbian affairs, including border regulations and enforcement.


It’s curious that Djokovic ultimately lost his appeal on the grounds of “public interest” because he was deemed a potential threat to the civic order. That level of sinister importance could stroke someone’s ego, but Djokovic could have been sent packing for the kind of reason that leads you to yell “Duh!” while smacking a palm against your forehead.

For one thing, Djokovic didn’t fill out his visa paperwork correctly. But clerical errors aside, he failed to disclose —coincidence?—that he had been in Spain in the 14 days before making his travel declaration to enter Australia, an egregious error that alone would have been grounds for visa denial. Djokovic promptly blamed the mistake on his agent.

For another, serious questions swirled around the procedure that led to Djokovic testing positive for COVID-19 in mid-December. That infection might have worked in his favor, as overcoming a recent case of coronavirus was one path for scoring an exemption. But the gambit failed when Djokovic was seen on social media hobnobbing with unmasked adults and kids the day after his positive test. Isolation averse, Djokovic also did an interview with the French sporting newspaper L’Equipe, later confessing that it was “an error in judgment.”

The longer the convoluted tale dragged on, the more resentment Djokovic and his intransigence generated. He continued to cling to increasingly unlikely hopes to the point where his pigheadedness finally did structural damage to the tournament. The vacancy he left at the top place in the draw when he was finally sent home was filled by a lucky loser, Salvatore Caruso, thanks to the complicated protocols developed for just such an emergency.

Novak Djokovic, on his way out of Australia.

Novak Djokovic, on his way out of Australia.


It’s difficult to gauge the long-term impact this affair will have on Djokovic and his legacy. Sounding as if she had a prescient understanding of how all this was destined to play out, his wife Jelena tweeted a Christmas greeting on Jan. 6, complete with the praying hands emoji, telling her followers, “We will grow from this experience.”

It just might be a little too late for that. Djokovic has often banged on about “evolving,” using quasi-spiritual jargon and presenting as a deep thinker. But his actions regarding this Australian Open were so selfish, so tone deaf, so indifferent to the feelings of millions who have suffered through the pandemic that it’s difficult to see him winning back the esteem he earned over the past few years.

When the case was finally resolved, Serbian president Vucic issued a statement that read, in part, “I told him (Djokovic) that I can’t wait for him to come to Serbia and return to his country, and to be where he is always welcome.”

Serbia may be the only place Djokovic is welcomed now. In Australia, the support capital he built up through the years as an iconic champion appears to be exhausted. He put the nation, and the tournament, through the wringer. We’ll see how he fares when he tries to skate by without being vaccinated in the coming months.