When Novak Djokovic landed in Melbourne for this year’s Australian Open, he had no idea he was about to become the ultimate political tennis ball – slammed backwards and forwards across the court of public opinion by Australian politicians eager to score points ahead of a critical election this year.
In refusing to get vaccinated, and claiming to have natural immunity to the virus from prior infection, Djokovic ignited a firestorm. By and large, Australian citizens have largely complied with vaccine mandates for everyone over the age of 12. More than 90 percent of eligible Australians are double vaccinated. Many were furious that an unvaccinated tennis star was being allowed into the country, even if he had recovered from Covid in the past.
Enter the politicians, both federal and national, who’ve been playing a tug-of-war battle over Australia’s Covid response since the pandemic hit. While the Australian government doles out money and buys vaccines, state governments are constitutionally responsible for healthcare and state of emergencies.
This has given them unprecedented powers. The Australian Open’s host city of Melbourne in Victoria has endured arguably the longest and most draconian lockdown in the world. Protests were banned, schools shut and curfews declared for months on end as the state’s left-wing leader pursued a Covid-zero policy that has since crumbled in the face of the Delta and Omicron variants.
Outbreaks are spreading like wildfire across much of the country; Melbourne is registering 35,000 reported cases each day, with many times that number believed to be undetected. All of this is causing panic among Australians who are facing the wrath of the virus for the first time since the pandemic began.
Australian PM Scott Morrison has tried to present a united front to hide the fact that his government has been rendered toothless by their inability to lead a cohesive national response, or rein in state leaders’ excesses. Sensitive to the public outrage over Djokovic and facing a tough battle for re-election this year, Morrison quickly shifted from suggesting unvaccinated tennis players be allowed into the country after a two week quarantine, to slamming the Serbian tennis star for his failure to be vaccinated. It is no coincidence that Victoria’s left-wing leader, another canny operator, is also up for re-election in 2022.
It’s against this background of political finger-pointing that Novak Djokovic experienced the full force of Fortress Australia’s tough border policies when his plane landed in Melbourne last week. The Australian Border Force interrogated him throughout the night, before cancelling his visa. He was then sent to a detention centre in a Melbourne Hotel housing refugees facing deportation, while officials arranged a flight back home.
Djokovic quickly hired a team of lawyers and took the Australian government to court. As his legal battle unfolded, he was stuck in his room, unable to play tennis, work out in a gym or access his elite athlete dietary requirements. These conditions infuriated Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić who accused Australia of carrying out a “political witch-hunt”. “Australia has become a dystopia, a mockery of the free world,” raged Djokovic’s father Srdjan to Serbian media.
Though Djokovic won his legal battle this afternoon, he could still be kicked out of Australia as the Minister of Immigration retains the discretion to deport him regardless of the court’s decision. Yet whatever happens next, Australia’s politicians would be foolish to expect either Djokovic’s growing band of supporters, or the wider scandal, to disappear quietly. Former Wimbledon doubles champion Paul McNamee told a local radio station the debacle had “hurt (Australia’s) sporting reputation in hosting major events”. He believes the Serbian no.1 may have won over some Australians who “will commend his guts to take on the Australian government”.
In standing up for himself against an overwhelming consensus, it seems Novak Djokovic might have won more than just a court case.
Megan Goldin is a Melbourne-based journalist and author of the upcoming thriller ‘Stay Awake’