The Australian Open is now well underway, and missing one of its big name draws. At least – had said big name stayed in the country, he might have been a draw for all the wrong reasons.
Could we have seen what played out down under coming? Throughout the pandemic, 34-year-old Djokovic had been noticeably silent with regards to his vaccination status, leading many to speculate (correctly) that he wasn’t vaccinated at all. He later hosted a tennis tournament at which he and several others contracted the virus, and spoke out against necessary vaccination to compete, citing health risks.
Within his admittance to and subsequent deportation from Australia, multiple errors were made – on both sides. He was granted his visa via an exemption from Tennis Australia on insufficient eligibility that did not qualify him for one. The government failed to check the few dozen exemptions on the assumption Tennis Australia would acknowledge their advice that a prior Covid infection would not be sufficient. When Djokovic landed, the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison did a number of about turns on the issue based upon public opinion. Djokovic himself failed to fill out his entry form correctly – omitting the fact that he had been in Spain and Serbia prior to flying to Australia – and broke self-isolation rules (because he didn’t want to let down the journalist interviewing him. Don’t worry, he had his mask on the whole time!).
Allowing him in the country to compete, as the world number one with the best chance of winning what would have been a record breaking 21st Grand Slam tournament, would have been a slap in the face for the population of Australia. Melbourne and the state of Victoria especially has been one of the most locked down cities in the entire world, and around one in eight people in the country have contracted the virus.
The competition last year was not without controversy. Although during stages of the pandemic Australia managed to remain Covid- and lockdown-free, the tournament took place at a time when much of Europe was under stay-at-home orders. Stories of Australian families struggling to get on a flight back home provided the backdrop for over a thousand players, support staff and media to jet into the country for little over a month. The contrast meant their government’s management of coronavirus restrictions was perceived as hypocritical, and they were keen to avoid that happening again.
Forcing Djokovic out of the country, for fear that he might encourage anti-vaccine sentiment not only within Australia but globally, highlights the exposure sportspeople receive. In a world where Covid is endemic, getting a vaccination is crucial, and Novak does not set the example that would be sought of him. Whether or not advertising and other media groups will continue to work with him in light of this remains to be seen.
But how will the populations of the other Grand Slam-hosting nations – France, the UK, the US – greet Djokovic and his now apparent unvaccinated status? He will be allowed into all three countries, provided he fulfills isolation requirements, but what about the tournaments themselves, with potential vaccine mandates now clear as to just who they would exclude?
Djokovic has never been a fan favourite. He has never struck the same chord or drawn the same crowds as Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. At the most recent US Open, where he was runner up, he paid respect to the crowd, which awarded him applause and an ovation unlike anything seen in his career previously. This saga has, however, most likely pulled that support away from the majority of tennis fans who, like the majority of the population, are vaccinated.
Assuming that he is and will still be at the top of his game for the next few years, Djokovic is likely to reach that elusive number 21. But it’s unlikely crowds worldwide will leap to their feet.
Image: [Wikimedia Commons]