SYDNEY, Australia – What started as a power struggle between a defiantly vulnerable tennis star and a prime minister seeking to distract from his pre-election gaffes has turned into something much heavier: a public stance on the rules of the pandemic and the collective interest.
And the sinner of the moment is Novak Djokovic.
Australia – the proud ‘sporting nation’ as its first major tennis tournament starts on Monday – has swirled around and irritated Mr Djokovic for more than a week. Australians didn’t like how their government summarily canceled Mr Djokovic’s visa at the airport. Obedient to all the lockdown and vaccination campaigns, they also weren’t happy with the famed athlete’s efforts to slip into the country while circumventing the Covid vaccination mandate.
“As Meryl Streep might say, it’s complicated,” said Peter Fitzsimmons, author and former professional rugby player.
But then came a series of unusual discoveries that eliminated any popular duality. Mr Djokovic admitted that he did not self-isolate last month while he was apparently suspected, and later confirmed, of having the Covid virus. He blamed his agent for a false statement about an immigration document that warned harsh penalties for any mistakes.
In doing so, Australia’s leaders decided they had seen enough. On Friday, the country’s immigration minister revoked Mr Djokovic’s visa for a second time, putting his bid to win a record Grand Slam title in serious doubt. If Mr Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s tennis player, does not succeed in challenging the decision in court, he will be arrested and deported before the competition.
In the end, a country far from the epicenter of Covid suffering, where sport is a respected forum for right and wrong, has become an implementer of the collective values that the whole world has been struggling to preserve during the pandemic.
Mr. Djokovic sought to play by his own rules. First, he admitted submitting an entry form at the airport in which he falsely said he had not traveled internationally in the 14 days prior to his arrival in Melbourne. He was actually traveling during that time between his native Serbia and Spain. (He said the misrepresentation was a “human error” by his agent.)
Then there was everything he did during the time he thought he might have been exposed to Covid, and in the end, in his account, he tested positive – a Covid diagnosis that enabled him to be exempted from the vaccine in the first place.
Five days in December more or less pared his unparalleled 10th Australian Open chances as the world saw what many of his critics described as a selfish and reckless disregard for the health of others.
The tale begins on December 14, when, as the photo attests, he went to a basketball match in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, with a person who later tested positive for Covid. On December 16, according to an affidavit given by his lawyers in the Australian Federal Court after his first visa was revoked, he took a PCR test that came back positive at 8 that night.
He said that the next day, before he got the result, he took a quick antigen test that came back negative. Then he attended a junior tennis party in Belgrade, where photos show him without a mask near the children.
Later that day, December 17, Djokovic said he learned of a positive PCR test result. But he did not then enter 14 days of isolation, as the Serbian government requires. The next day, December 18, he gave a media interview and photo at his tennis center in Belgrade. He later said he knew he had Covid, calling it a “miscalculation” to proceed with the interview, but said he felt “compelled” to do so.
The journalists involved said they were never told that Djokovic tested positive.
Of all his actions, which include a history of other dismissive attitudes toward the pandemic and sometimes outrageous outbursts in court, it seems his behavior after receiving a positive test has put the world on edge over his moral compass.
Refusal to vaccinate was one thing. But obscuring the fact that it was contagious?
“For him to do this photoshoot because he doesn’t want to disappoint someone – are you kidding me?” Martina Navratilova said on Australian Morning TV this week.
“I’ll stay at home, and you can’t take me out of the house for anything.”
Many Australians saw Mr Djokovic’s actions as both dishonest and disregard for others. Some have questioned whether he actually tested positive in the first place, given the timing of his exemption from vaccination. They could almost smell the arrogance in his behavior, and found it tidy, especially at this point in the pandemic.
The ethos of community that has defined the country’s response to the virus — with people grinding through lockdowns and yearning for family as borders close, only for the rush to get their vaccinations — is in an uncertain place for now.
The Omicron rate is rising, and Australians are seeing more deaths per day than at any time since the Covid hit. They want the wave to pass. They yearn for continued solidarity.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought to exploit that desire when he swooped on the first revocation of Mr Djokovic’s visa, tweeting about an hour after this happened on January 6 that “rules are rules”.
He made this point again Friday evening after announcing the cancellation of the second visa, four days after it was returned to a judge for procedural reasons.
“Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect to protect the result of those sacrifices,” he said.
Although the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, noted what he described as a public health risk in Mr Djokovic’s visa revocation, doctors were less convinced that health was the problem. With tens of thousands of new Covid cases every day in Australia, and high vaccination rates among vulnerable groups, not a single athlete poses much of a threat.
“From a medical perspective, you could say, OK, what’s the problem?” Dr Peter Collignon, Physician and Professor of Microbiology at the Australian National University said.
Novak Djokovic vs Australia
But the “Djokovic affair” is no longer – and may not have been – just about science.
Three years after the pandemic, Dr. Collignon said, this question raised the question of moral judgment. “When do we stop punishing people for making bad decisions?” Asked.
In Australia, the answer is “not yet”.
Now, as before, a gentleman is one who does not infect anyone, as Albert Camus wrote in his 1947 novel The Plague, and if the prime minister had not jumped at the issue, someone else probably would. Mr Djokovic, 34, has put himself center stage in the arena where Australia often defines what it wants to be as a nation.
Sport is life for many Australians. Participation rates are high, and even watching others compete has been described for generations as a character-building activity.
Character is also what Australian immigration law requires for all immigrants. The “personality test” is at the heart of a provision that gives the Minister of Immigration the right to refuse or cancel a visa for a wide range of reasons, although in this case it relied on another section that allows the Minister to refuse a visa if it is “in the public interest”.
The broad scope of the law has often been abused. More than two dozen refugees remain in the same hotel where Mr. Djokovic stayed while awaiting the hearing to revoke his first visa. Some, like Mehdi Ali, a musician who fled Iran when he was 15, has been held by Australia for many years.
But for Mr Djokovic, Australia’s tough stance on border security appears to have led to an outcome that many people could support, even if it means the Australian Open is less interesting.
At Melbourne Park on Friday, where Mr Djokovic was due to train after his top seed selection, fans looked resigned to losing a player who was both fun to watch and hard to admire.
“He has a way of rubbing the Australian public the wrong way,” said Damien Sonder, 44, a cartographer and president of a tennis club near Melbourne. “There is no disrespect for him or his tennis abilities and that, but there is something about him that doesn’t please the Australian public.”
Christopher Cleary contributed reporting from Melbourne, Australia.