MELBOURNE, Australia—The Novak Djokovic saga combines the two things which, over the course of my 10 trips down here to cover tennis, I’ve come to see as Australia’s two defining passions: sports and following rules.
Though I am repeatedly baffled by Melburnians’ unwillingness to jaywalk across empty streets, their willingness to follow orders and act in the interest of a common good proved pivotal in Australia’s success through the first 20 months or so of the coronavirus pandemic: with a sense of collectivism and sacrifice, Australians complied with some of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns, keeping coronavirus cases near zero despite a slow vaccination rollout. When vaccines became available, people across this country of roughly 25 million got vaccinated quickly and enthusiastically.
The virus’ earlier variants were staved off with remarkable resolve—but omicron has crashed onto Australian shores unabated; there were more positive coronavirus tests here in Victoria in the first three days of 2022 than there were in all of 2020. As long lines at testing centers wrapped around city blocks and shortages of at-home tests in stores left shelves empty, there was a sense of defeat and dread.
It was in this low moment of resignation that Novak Djokovic chose to break his silence. The nine-time Australian Open champion ended months of will-he-won’t-he speculation by saying he was on his way Down Under with an exemption from vaccination requirements that would let him compete in the Australian Open without the vaccines that other players had thought they needed to enter. At least 95 of the players in the ATP top 100 had been vaccinated, but Djokovic, a long-time open vaccine skeptic, was finally confirming openly that he hadn’t been, and that he was coming for the trophy all the same.
The outraged response was swift and ubiquitous across Australian social media and traditional media. The image of Djokovic grinning next to a laden luggage cart was seen as a taunt, an affront to the collective sacrifice of Australians.
Omicron couldn’t be stopped at the border, Australian leaders quickly realized, but perhaps Novak Djokovic could be. In a culture known for “tall poppy syndrome,” what figure would be more impressive to take down a peg than the player with an 82–8 record in Melbourne?
The long flights from Europe to Australia allowed plenty of time for a defense to mobilize. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison threatened to put Djokovic “on the next plane home” if his application was found wanting. Across party and state lines, no politicians wanted to be seen as giving Djokovic a smooth landing into the country. Upon scrutiny after his arrival, Djokovic’s exemption was deemed insufficient, his visa was canceled, and he was, as Morrison had promised, set to be on the next flight home. Djokovic appealed his deportation, however; while he awaits his final hearing on Monday, Australians have celebrated.
There is a considerable Serbian population in Melbourne that has assured Djokovic a vocal cheering section; with their confidence in his prowess here, they often haven’t turned up to Rod Laver Arena in significant numbers before the semifinal and final in recent years. But even when they make up a small percentage of the crowd, they get loud. In growing numbers, they have gathered outside the government detention facility where Djokovic is staying—alongside refugees who were denied asylum—while he awaits his appeal hearing.
While ultimate blame should fall on Djokovic for stubbornly refusing to take the simplest path of vaccination, he can also fairly place some blame on others for his current predicament, probably most clearly Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley. How could the tournament have given Djokovic such an inaccurate impression of the situation?
Tiley has a history of granting wrongly rosy projections both to players—understating how harsh quarantine restrictions would be for players in 2021—and to media, often promising the appearances of injured players who pull out of the event. (“There is no question she will be ready in our view,” Tiley said in late 2017, just three months after Williams had struggled through a pulmonary embolism following the cesarean section birth of her daughter, Olympia. Williams was not ready for the 2018 Australian Open. “For sure Andy will be here,” Tiley said of Andy Murray in advance of the 2020 Australian Open. Murray was not there.)
Most critically in this case, Tiley should also bear responsibility for the Australian Open even offering exemptions to begin with; a clear vaccine mandate would have stopped Djokovic from trying and failing to get in a side door, only to be stuck in a public purgatory. According to former Tennis Australia employees, Tiley was eager enough to see Djokovic potentially break the all-time men’s grand slam singles titles at his tournament to try to get the laws changed to accommodate him. “The treatment of players who fall within one of these categories goes to the heart of the viability of the Australian Open,” Tiley wrote in a letter to government health officials, according to the Age.
This calculation was especially wrong because Djokovic is believed to be one of only two players who entered with an exemption. (Doubles specialist Renata Voracova was the other; her visa has also been revoked and she’s headed home.) And despite his historic success, Djokovic—as has been clear in Australia for years—is not popular enough to justify such incredible concessions. This is clear both in tennis stadiums and when he appears in wider pop culture here, such as when a contestant picked Djokovic as his specialist category on a game show and was mocked relentlessly throughout the episode.
Given everything we know about Australia, bending rules for Djokovic’s sake was a doubly bad idea. Someone at Tennis Australia clearly recognized this: The nine-time champion is conspicuously absent from all promotional images for the tournament around the grounds and the city.
The only place most Australians want to see Djokovic right now, it’s clear, is on a flight home.