Editor’s Note: Stephanie Myles is the Montreal-based publisher of the tennis news site Open Court who has reported from the Australian Open since 2008. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
This was not part of Novak Djokovic’s plan. The tennis star who posed with a big grin Tuesday, planes on the tarmac behind him, announcing that he’d been granted a medical exemption to play at the Australian Open and was about to fly Down Under, was instead about to embark on a saga of epic proportions.
Had things gone according to Djokovic’s plans, he would have arrived in Australia Wednesday night and be out on Rod Laver Arena in the Melbourne summer sun by Friday at the latest, working out the kinks from the flight and preparing for the Australian Open.
Instead, Djokovic spent Wednesday night at Tullamarine Airport. And he’ll spend at least the next four days at Melbourne’s Park Hotel, after apparently traveling to Australia on a visa that does not permit medical exemptions for the unvaccinated, according to comments Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made to CNN.
Djokovic, 34, has not publicly revealed his vaccination status and has repeatedly cited privacy issues when asked. On Thursday, Morrison said in a news conference that Djokovic “didn’t have a valid medical exemption” to the vaccination requirement for arrivals.
The multimillionaire tennis star is now a man in limbo, currently staying in a hotel used as an immigration detention center, and which has since become a magnet for protesters of all stripes – from Djokovic supporters to refugee advocates. Djokovic fans even got a wave and a “heart” sign from their hero, from behind the hotel-room window.
But according to accounts from some asylum-seekers who have stayed there, the Park Hotel is a place of tiny rooms without fresh air and the location of a coronavirus outbreak in October. It’s where some occupants have waited years for a resolution to their cases.
So there’s an irony in the fact that the hotel’s newest guest had his appeal of the canceled visa and deportation order fast-tracked to be heard in hours.
Djokovic moved in on Thursday, and he’ll remain there at least four days after the hearing concerning his appeal of the cancellation of his travel visa was adjourned to Monday.
However you might feel about the polarizing Djokovic, there’s not a scenario where he ever deserved this. It’s unlikely the world’s No. 1 tennis player would have got on the long commercial flight to Melbourne had he not been given a green light from tournament officials.
But somewhere along the way, the information pipeline involving Australian Open officials, the Victorian state government and federal authorities has become a game of broken telephone.
Prime Minister Morrison insisted the buck stopped with authorities at the border, not tennis organizers. “Tennis Australia said that he could play and that’s fine, that’s their call, but we make the call at the border,” he said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, along with acting state sports minister Jaala Pulford, urged Djokovic to be forthcoming about why he was granted the exemption. It would have got them off the hook a little. They swore he wasn’t getting special treatment, but didn’t elaborate.
After all, no official would want to be seen to be handing Djokovic a “get out of jail free card.” Melbournians endured some of the longest and toughest lockdowns in the world over the last 18 months as the country pursued a zero-Covid strategy. While those restrictions have eased – for now – and the nation has officially pivoted to “living with the virus,” memories of the restrictions that saw Melbourne in particular bunkered down for months linger for its residents.
Rumbling in the background of the Djokovic debacle is Australia’s Covid-19 surge, with the Omicron variant posing a fresh threat just as states were loosening restrictions. There is a sense of unease and panic that wasn’t here a year ago. The queues for PCR tests or rapid tests stretch city blocks. Pathology laboratories and testing sites are shutting down because of overload. Even if it is the authorities and not Djokovic himself who are responsible for allowing him into the country, the timing couldn’t be worse.
And with state and federal elections due this year, the high-profile Djokovic drama is an opportunity for politicians to show off their tough stance on Covid-19 rule-breakers.
Djokovic got a taste a year ago of how Australians treat the tall poppies – the ones who stick their heads above the rest and expect special treatment. A smaller group of tennis players and support staff traveled to last year’s Australian Open and faced a two-week quarantine before they could compete.
Any minor complaint about bad quarantine food was greeted with anger and derision by many locals. The players simply didn’t understand, according to many Melbournians, how privileged they were to be allowed into the country when so many loved ones could not get home, even to attend funerals.
In the last 24 hours, Djokovic hasn’t helped himself. One report from a Serbian tennis journalist had Djokovic requesting to stay in the large apartment he has rented for himself and his coaches and trainers, rather than at the Park Hotel.
One imagines the refugees detained along with him would be thrilled to hear about that. And if there’s one thing we know about Djokovic, it’s that he’s never been particularly good at reading the room. His lawyer, Nick Wood, even tried to hurry up the proceedings Thursday by saying that Tennis Australia “needed to know by Tuesday” whether Djokovic would play, so it could “find a replacement player if necessary.
But the Australian Open is not a two-man exhibition in which one player gone missing is a crisis. There will be more than 100 players vying to qualify for spots in the main draw next week at Melbourne Park. Finding a warm body is not going to be a problem.
In the end, Djokovic’s hubris hasn’t helped. But no one – not the various levels of government, not Tennis Australia and Tiley – come out of this looking good. And if Djokovic’s lawyer makes a convincing case before the judge on Monday, and his client does arrive at Melbourne Park ready to compete, the Aussie fans will be sure to give him the “welcome” they feel he deserves.