January 16, 2022

Djokovic Deported: A Sad & Sorry Saga.

I am sick of hearing about Novak Djokovic.

Nevertheless, I’m going to write about him. He’s at the centre of a sh*tstorm. Partly of his own making, Djokovic’s latest debacle also shows Australia in a grossly bad light. Rightly so. Indeed, I’m ashamed of my country and not for the first time in the past few months.

Djokovic boarded a plane last week to defend his Australian Open title, secure in the knowledge that his medical exemption to participate in the Australian Open would qualify him for a vaccine exemption to validate his visa. But by the time he arrived in Australia, in the early hours of January 5th, Australian Border Force officials revoked his visa saying he had, “failed to provide appropriate evidence” to receive the exemption.

On January 10th, Judge Anthony Kelly reinstated Djokovic’s visa when the government admitted its border officials acted unreasonably in deciding to cancel it. Then, on Friday evening, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke re-cancelled Djokovic’s visa under Australia’s Migration Act on the basis that he is a threat t0 public health.

Update: January 16, 2021: Finally, on Sunday, a three-member panel of Australia’s Federal Court confirmed the Immigration Minister’s decision and Djokovic boarded a plane to Dubai later that day.

How is this possible?

It comes as no surprise to Australians. Our pandemic rules and restrictions change daily and vary from state to state. The Federal government seems oblivious, at times, to what the state governments are mandating. Passing the buck has become our politicians’ favourite game. But to withdraw a visa while its holder is supposed to have time to respond to their inquiries seems exceptional, even for our malfunctioning systems. The mixed messages continued with the government’s re-cancellation of Djokovic’s visa on Friday following its judicial reinstatement earlier this week. Notwithstanding Djokovic’s ultimate deportation, what message are we sending to the world through our government’s bungling obsession with border policies?

It’s a bungle of epic proportions.

Djokovic has every right to be angry. As does Renata Voracova (the Czech doubles player whose visa was also withdrawn), and the unnamed tennis official who suffered the same fate. Voracova left the country without fanfare and is now suing Tennis Australia for compensation. Again, rightly so. This was a dignified response to an outrage. I hope she wins.

Djokovic, on the other hand, stayed and challenged the decision. Twice. He was still scheduled to play right up until the tournament eve. He made headlines around the world etc. Described as a polarising figure for his entire career, he is again polarising opinion, not just in Australia, but all over the tennis-loving world. 

The story becomes extremely murky from here. While I believe it is definitely wrong to revoke someone’s visa mid-flight, this judgement is based on an assumption that the recipient presented a truthful application. 

Apparently, Djokovic did not. 

Indeed, as more and more of his recent behaviour comes to light, he is looking like a man who considers himself above the law. He lied to Australian border officials about whether he had travelled in the two weeks prior to entering Australia. He apparently entered Spain without fulfilling their pandemic entry restrictions. After receiving his positive COVID-19 test result he broke Serbian quarantine regulations to attend an interview with a French journalist. While awaiting his test results, he attended several public functions, including one that involved children. The full extent of his disregard is still unknown, as there are discrepancies over the dates of his test, his infection, and the delivery of his results.

How is this in any way acceptable?

It is irresponsible. Reckless. And it gives the appearance of a man who rates his own glorious career above the public health of three nations. Even the Serbian prime minister, Ana Brnabic, initially so supportive of her country’s tennis icon, has now instigated an investigation into his breach of regulations.

Can we please try for some proper perspective on all this? Djokovic, for all his fame, is only a tennis player. Tennis is a game. It doesn’t save lives, make medical breakthroughs, address human rights abuses or create lasting and meaningful contributions to culture. Although he is currently World No.1, someone else will hold that position a few years down the track. He is desperate to prove himself greater than Federer and Nadal—but again, whatever records he sets will eventually be broken.

Tennis has always had its bad boys, but even the baddest boy of all, John McEnroe, confined his badness to the tennis court. Mostly, the greatest players have been icons both on and off the court. They have been great role models and provided inspiration to many. To my mind, Djokovic will never be greater than Federer and Nadal, no matter how many records he breaks, because as a human being he is falling short.

Undoubtedly, he has done good in the world and is a man whose heart is very much in the right place. He has put some of his vast wealth to very good use, forming the Novak Djokovic Foundation to support early childhood education in Serbia. He donated handsomely to the Australian Bushfire Appeal back in 2020. But he is not unique in this—most of the top players spread their wealth where it is needed. Other players, though, do not consider that either their prowess on the court or their generosity off it puts them above the law.

Regardless of the outcome this week, Djokovic should experience a fall from grace in the eyes of the world. Countless people have died in this pandemic, families have been separated, jobs and businesses have been lost. Covid has brought untold misery around the world. And yet Djokovic appears to think that a 10th Australian Open crown is more important than all of this. His actions over the past few weeks are, quite frankly, an insult to a suffering world.

None of this absolves the Australian Border Force of blame. They revoked his visa before any of these transgressions came to light. That is wrong. If Djokovic had quietly returned home and then sued Tennis Australia, as did Renata Voracova, his reputation would be unsullied. The world would perceive him as the victim of a grievous injustice and would be cheering him on to win his record 10th title in 2023. 

Instead, he has forfeited all respect. His claim that some of it was the fault of his team, and therefore not his responsibility, is both cowardly and ludicrous. We are all responsible for the content of forms that bear our signature, and Djokovic is no exception.

And please, can we try to remember that tennis is just a game?


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