Novak Djokovic’s hopes of returning to the Australian Open and competing for a record 21st grand slam title and a shot at tennis immortality crashed in astonishing fashion on Thursday as he was denied entrance into Melbourne, Victoria at the airport and his visa was cancelled due to insufficient evidence to support a medical exemption. His journey to that moment reveals much about him.
Towards the end of last year, as thoughts shifted to the season ahead, and players considered their participation at Melbourne Park, Djokovic gave an interview to Serbian publication Blic. He described questions about his vaccination status as “inappropriate” and he bemoaned the role of the media. He was pointedly direct: “Your editors can take what I have just said and turn it into a scandal,” he said. “I do not want to be a part of that storm.”
During the first week of the Australian tennis summer, the storm arrived when Djokovic announced on social media that he had received an “exemption permission” to travel to Australia without being vaccinated. Over the past few months, the vaccination requirements for players wishing to compete at the Australian Open have left a profound mark on the professional tours. Uptake of Covid vaccines in tennis had been extremely slow, but once the Victoria state government rules were confirmed, the rate of vaccination rose. It only made the world No 1’s unresolved status more conspicuous.
While Djokovic never explicitly revealed his vaccination status, he has offered numerous indications of his stance. Long before vaccines were available, he stated his concern about having to be vaccinated in order to travel.
He has often stressed the importance of embracing “natural” solutions; early in the pandemic he held Instagram live conversations in which he spoke of how the power of gratitude could “turn the most toxic food, or maybe most polluted water into the most healing water.” After having surgery on his right elbow in 2018, a procedure that has allowed him to win nine grand slam titles since, he said that he cried for three days. His belief in alternative medicine is complemented by his commitment to alternative history. He frequently retreats to Visoko, in the hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he meets up with the businessman Semir Osmanagic – whose claims that there are ancient man-made structures with magical healing powers, refuted by scientists, have turned the hills into a lucrative tourist destination. Djokovic has also expressed his support for the ultranationalist alternative historian Jovan Deretic, whose writings claim, among other things, that numerous European cultures, including ancient Greeks, Celts and Etruscans, are descended from Serbs.
Djokovic is unyielding in his commitment to his beliefs away from the court, however questionable they are, and that single-mindedness is also visible in his faith in the methods that have led to his on-court success.
Since the criteria for the Australian Open became clear, it always appeared that Djokovic intended to find a way to compete at the tournament, but only without compromising those beliefs.
Last year, one of the defining images of the chaotic Australian Open was the continued presence of the tournament director, Craig Tiley, on television as he managed the sudden lockdown that prevented crowds attending much of the event. After Djokovic’s announcement, Tiley returned to a similar role yesterday as he stressed there had been no favourable treatment for Djokovic and reinforced the strength of the medical exemption process. The exemption applications were reviewed by two independent panels of experts, one assembled by Tennis Australia and another by the Victorian government, which Tiley described as a more rigorous process than for regular citizens.
But further obstacles emerged on Tuesday, when Australia’s home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, said it was the federal government that would “enforce our requirements at the Australian border”, whatever Tennis Australia and the Victorian government might have decided about a non-vaccinated player taking part in the tournament.
Djokovic is popular with a considerable group of players due to the concern he has expressed for the lower-ranked members of the ATP Tour but, as the world No 1, he is also a clear beneficiary of the privileges afforded to top players. The cynicism that some have was reflected in comments from Jamie Murray, who suggested he does not believe he would have received an exemption, and Alex de Minaur who subtly described the subject as “interesting” and hoped that other applicants received the same treatment. In the end, he was sharply dealt with. The clear and simple solution for the world No 1 would have been to arrive in Australia vaccinated and without issue, but the federal government, Victoria state and Tennis Australia also shoulder significant blame for their contributions in allowing a player to travel for a full day before rejecting him at the border.
If Djokovic’s application was tenuous enough to be denied on arrival, the medical exemption process that was defended so stringently by Victoria State and Tennis Australia was a monumental blunder. As Djokovic was turned away and forced to grapple with his shattered dreams, one reality was difficult to escape. In this storm, everybody had lost something.