Novak Djokovic vs Australia: a story of trashed reputations

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Novak Djokovic (left) and Australian PM Scott Morrison (top right) went head to head - SHUTTERSTOCK / AP
Novak Djokovic (left) and Australian PM Scott Morrison (top right) went head to head - SHUTTERSTOCK / AP

Novak Djokovic has lost his judicial review against the cancellation of his visa and is being deported from Australia.

The verdict from Chief Justice James Allsop came following a unanimous decision from the three judges hearing the case at the Federal Court of Australia on Sunday.

The decision means, barring further legal action, nine-time champion Djokovic will not be defending his title at the Australian Open, which starts on Monday, and could be unable to travel to Australia for three years.

The three judges deliberated for a little over two hours before Chief Justice Allsop delivered the verdict just before 6pm in Melbourne having heard submissions from both parties earlier in the day.

It brings to an end an unsavoury saga from which all concerned have had their reputations tarnished:

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic is surrounded by reporters - REUTERS
Novak Djokovic is surrounded by reporters - REUTERS

Strange though it might seem to recall, the world No 1 once had a healthy relationship with the Australian public. He prevailed in the greatest Australian Open final of all, a 2012 epic with Rafael Nadal lasting almost six hours, and donated money to relief efforts following the devastating bushfires of early 2020. He still retained a semblance of goodwill in the wake of his first visa cancellation, with Nick Kyrgios, once the Serb’s most strident critic, describing his detention in a Melbourne hotel usually used for asylum-seekers as “inhumane”.

For many, though, the benefit of the doubt evaporated when Djokovic ill-advisedly sought to clarify his movements before leaving Spain for Australia. It was a grave PR miscalculation, confirming not only that his agent had entered false information on his travel declaration on his behalf, but that he had also conducted an interview with a French journalist on December 18 while knowingly Covid-positive.

Australian government

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison - SHUTTERSTOCK
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison - SHUTTERSTOCK

While Scott Morrison’s administration has used its treatment of Djokovic to demonstrate its unyielding border policies, its interventions have come across as opportunistic. It was only minutes after the initial revoking of his visa that the prime minister issued a statement proclaiming: “Rules are rules”. It happened again when Djokovic was threatened with deportation a second time, as Morrison declared: “Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected.”

Morrison’s eagerness to attach himself to Djokovic’s case has to be seen in the context of his own position. He faces a federal election in May and is under mounting criticism for his perceived fault in allowing the omicron variant to engulf Australia. But Djokovic has presented him with both a helpful distraction and a surefire vote-winner: by throwing out the world’s best tennis player, he can give the impression that even the most privileged athletes are not above the law.

Craig Tiley

Australian Open tournament chief Craig Tiley - AFP
Australian Open tournament chief Craig Tiley - AFP

The South African tournament director has been awfully quiet since appearing on national television to insist that Djokovic’s medical exemption was above board. He had, it turned out, spoken too soon: within hours, the government was contradicting his arguments, claiming that a prior infection with Covid-19 was not an acceptable reason for an unvaccinated player to be allowed into the country. To add to the confusion, it emerged that correspondence advising Tennis Australia of the government’s policy had simply gone missing.

For all Tiley’s effectiveness in raising the Australian Open’s profile, this has not been the first bungle on his watch. In 2020, a player collapsed on court after being forced to play in thick bushfire smoke, while last year there was outrage among the rank-and-file at having to quarantine for two weeks with no fresh air while the superstars were given rooms with balconies. Tiley, a close friend of Roger Federer’s, is understood to have been desperate to involve Djokovic at any cost to preserve the 2022 event’s prestige. It could yet prove his undoing.

Australian Open

Novak Djokovic celebrates winning the Australian Open in 2015 - GETTY IMAGES
Novak Djokovic celebrates winning the Australian Open in 2015 - GETTY IMAGES

This was once the poor relation of the grand slam tournaments, with many top players resolving even throughout the 1980s to skip it as an inconvenience. Only recently has it grown to be the “happy slam”, an unmissable curtain-raiser to the tennis season. This hard-won distinction is at risk, sadly, of being seriously undermined by the shabby Djokovic pantomime. For a start, the removal of the nine-time champion diminishes its competitive integrity.

But Martine Letts, chief executive of the Committee for Melbourne, contends that the saga has also hurt the city’s reputation for hosting major events. “The affair has shown a vindictive and intolerant face of Australia, which we can ill afford as we seek to open up again to the world,” she told The Age. Lamenting the blame-game between different levels of government, she said: “As Australia’s global events and sporting capital, we really want to be seen as competent and welcoming as we emerge from being one of the world’s most locked-down jurisdictions.”

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