Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s tennis player in the world, does not deserve to play in the Australian Open. His flouting of the country’s coronavirus vaccination regime has nothing to do with “freedom” — and everything to do with the persecution complex he cultivates as a source of motivation.
The Open is arguably the most important international sporting event on the calendar in Oz. But if I were an Australian citizen, I’d be livid at the idea that Djokovic could waltz into the country — defiantly unvaccinated — and blithely go about staking his claim as tennis’s greatest of all time. I’d remember the early phase of the pandemic, when thousands of Aussies were stranded abroad for weeks or even months, barred from coming home. I’d remember the repeated lockdowns that were among the strictest and most punishing in the world.
Despite a judge’s ruling on Monday allowing Djokovic to remain in the country and compete, I’d want the government to use all its power to bar him anyway. And if all else failed and he ended up taking the court in Melbourne next week, I’d refuse to watch him play despite his undeniable, exquisite talent.
Djokovic, who is from Serbia, has won 20 singles titles in the four major tournaments — Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens — which leaves him tied with Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain as the greatest male tennis player of the Open era. Federer and Nadal, both of whom ooze charisma and glamour, have long been widely beloved. Djokovic, not so much.
Federer, who is fully vaccinated, is not playing in Melbourne this year. Nadal, who will compete, is also fully vaccinated — as Australian Open, Victoria state government and Australian national government rules require. According to the Economist magazine, 95 percent of top professional men’s tennis players are fully vaccinated.
Djokovic, however, is well-known as anti-vaccine. Contrarianism seems central to his persona.
He was given a sweetheart “medical exemption” to play in Australia by the tournament and the state, based on the fact that he recently had a covid-19 infection and thus should enjoy some immunity. In the days after testing positive in December, Djokovic did not isolate himself to protect others. Quite the contrary: He was photographed posing and mingling with groups of people, not even bothering to wear a mask.
That may not have been much of a concern in Belgrade, where Djokovic attended an event for young tennis players after testing positive. He is a national hero in Serbia, after all; and the Economist reports that only 45 percent of that nation’s adults are fully vaccinated. But Serbia has “suffered the second-highest number of excess deaths in the world per head of population” during the pandemic, according to the magazine’s tracker.
Djokovic’s exemption may be technically correct according to the tournament’s rules, as the court said on Monday. But it is morally wrong and contravenes the spirit of Australian law. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was right to cancel Djokovic’s visa. And despite the judge’s decision, Morrison’s government can, and should, still kick him out.
Serbia’s president complained that Djokovic is the victim of “persecution.” This lines up with the nationalistic view that Serbia is constantly being punished for its brutal aggression in the Balkan wars — and also with the suspicion that the tennis world does not want to see Djokovic surpass the more sympathetic Federer and Nadal as the GOAT.
But a couple of inconvenient facts destroy this Novak-against-the-world narrative. First, it is clear that the Australian national government’s policy on coronavirus vaccinations does not consider recent infection and recovery as grounds for exemption from the vaccination mandate, even if the tournament and the state of Victoria are willing to give Djokovic a pass. And, second, he could have avoided any possible question about his eligibility to play simply by getting vaccinated, as other elite tennis players have done. Djokovic is not being persecuted. He’s asking for special treatment.
Look, I’m actually a Djokovic fan — when he’s on the court. The man plays beautiful, thrilling tennis. He has earned his place among the pantheon of greats. And because he has triumphed at the Australian Open an incredible nine times, he would be favored to add a 10th title and take the career lead in major tournaments won.
But he doesn’t deserve the chance, not this year. Many Australians have endured months of lockdowns and restrictions, most recently because of a delta-variant driven wave of coronavirus infections. More than 90 percent of Australian adults have had at least two vaccine shots, according to government figures. Aussies have more than done their part to fight the pandemic.
Djokovic hasn’t. Wish him “G’day, mate.” And put him on a plane home.