Novak Djokovic and COVID-19: A Match!
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic landed in Melbourn, Australia, on January 5, 2022. He and his team were aboard an Emirates flight from Dubai to Australia. The purpose of the trip was to participate in the Australian Open, a Grand Slam tennis tournament, which begins on January 17, 2022.
Djokovic is the current number one male tennis player. He has won 20 Grand Slams. According to the Association of Tennis Professionals, he has earned $154.8 million in prize money during his career. (1) Last year, Djokovic was one win away from completing a calendar Grand Slam, something that has not been done since 1969, but lost in the final of the U.S. Open.
In order to play at the Australian Open, a player has to have two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine (i.e., be fully vaccinated). The travel guidance from the Australian government states (2):
Fully vaccinated Australian citizens, permanent residents and eligible visa holders can travel to and from Australia without needing to apply for a travel exemption.
Immediate family members of Australian citizens, permanent residents or New Zealand citizens usually resident in Australia who do not hold an eligible visa must provide proof of relationship before travel by submitting an exemption request through the Travel Exemption Portal.
All other temporary visa holders seeking to travel to Australia must apply for a travel exemption.
As a visiting athlete, Djokovic had a temporary visa. He received a visa because Tennis Australia granted him a medical exemption to participate in the tournament, based on a blind review from two medical panels. (3)
When Djokovic showed up at customs at the Melbourn airport, Australia Border Force (ABF) questioned his medical exemption and temporary visa, because he did not show proof of COVID-19 vaccination. He could not show proof, because he was not vaccinated.
Djokovic tested positive for COVID-19 in June 2020 during a charity tennis tournament, Adria Tour, that he organized in Serbia. That event turned out to be a disaster, with several tennis players getting infected with COVID-19. (4) On several occasions over the last year and a half, he has stated that he was against COVID-19 vaccinations. (5)
While ABF worked to sort out Djokovic’s visa and permission to enter the country on January 5, he waited in a room at the airport and talked to his parents and his lawyers. After a few hours, ABF transferred him into a 4-star Park Hotel, used to house refugees and asylum seekers. (6)
While all this was unfolding, Djokovic’s parents, Dijana Djokovic and Srdjan Djokovic, along with Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić, and Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, appeared on media outlets to support their son and national hero.
Dijana Djokovic felt that Australia treated her son as a prisoner (7), while Srdjan Djokovic made Serbian nationalistic comments and called his son “the best sportsman in the world.” (8) Speaking to media, Srdjan said (9):
Our pride is a prisoner of these idiots, shame on them, the whole free world together with Serbia should rise. This isn’t a battle for Serbia and Novak, it’s a battle for billions of people, for freedom of expression, for free speech, freedom of behaviour.
In an interview with Sky News, Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, agreed with Serbian President’s remarks that Djokovic was being persecuted. (10) In addition, Prime Minister Brnabic shared with Serbian media that the Serbian government arranged for Djokovic to get a laptop, SIM card, exercise equipment, and gluten-free food. (11)
On January 8, media channels reported that Djokovic received the medical exemption because he recently got infected with COVID-19. (12) In early December, the Australian Open organizers sent a letter to players, in which they incorrectly stated that, if a player had been infected with COVID-19 over the last six months, they would qualify for a medical exemption.
On January 10, Djokovic’s legal team won an appeal against the decision by the Australian government to cancel his visa. (13) The issue of the medical exemption was not discussed at the court hearing. Following the legal win, Djokovic was released from Park Hotel and showed up at the Australian Open tennis grounds for practice.
At the same time, reports came out that Djokovic lied on his travel declaration before he boarded his Emirates flight in Dubai. (14) He stated that he didn’t travel anywhere 14 days before arriving in Australia, when, in fact, he was in Serbia at Christmas (December 24–25) and then in Spain. While positive with COVID-19, he also did an interview with the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. (15)
On January 11, the Australian Open published the top 32 seeds, both women and men, at the tournament. Djokovic was the men’s number one seed. (16)
On January 15, Djokovic lost his second appeal in an Australian federal court to remain in the country and compete at the Australian Open. (17) He was deported the following day.
What do we have in this story?
We have the incompetence of Tennis Australia with the guidance for participating in the Australian Open.
We have the complete confusion of the Australian government and Australia Border Force over Djokovic’s visa, as if they were not the ones who wrote the law on who could enter Australia and who could enter the country during a pandemic.
We have the narrow-mindedness of the Australian legal system, which almost allowed Djokovic to stay in Australia and compete. If it weren’t for the people of Australia who voiced their concerns, Djokovic would have been allowed to stay in the country and compete.
We have the Serbian authorities who wasted time, money, and diplomatic resources to support a Serbian citizen, who clearly did not follow the Australian law.
We have Djokovic’s parents, who made pro-Serbian statements, glorified their son, verbally abused the Australian authorities, and overexaggerated the harm done to their son.
Finally, we have Djokovic, a perfectly healthy, extremely rich elite athlete, who thinks that he can get away with anything, in any country, by any means available to him. Hiding behind expensive lawyers and privilege, he believes he can buy his way out of any corner, including the ones he corners himself into. In the words of Australian TV anchors Mike Amor and Rebecca Maddern, we have “a lying sneaky asshole.” (18)
Djokovic has had two “matches” with COVID-19 so far. He won both. But an infectious disease is not a human being with a weak mind and body. The COVID-19 virus mutates and gets fitter over time. Sooner or later, they will meet again. And, maybe, again, and again, and again. If Djokovic remains unvaccinated, he will play this match for the rest of his life.