Novak Djokovic is the greatest of all time – right?
While it’s easy to make that point, it’s hard not to notice that he’s a “road less traveled” kind of guy. Like few other sportsmen, this is a man who cannot avoid controversy.
Incredibly, Nole won three of the last five Slams. But also, in two of those five majors, there were stunning failures. The Serb was kicked out of the 2020 US Open when he flattened a lineswoman with a tennis ball. He fell short of winning the calendar Grand Slam at the 2021 US Open. Plus at the Olympics, he didn’t win a medal and twice he hurled his racket in anger.
Then, he became embroiled in a tennis controversy like no other.
Before heading off on a 14-hour flight from Dubai to Melbourne, Nole posted an almost poetic, upbeat Instagram that had a hint of spirituality: “Happy New Year,” he wrote. “Wishing you all health, love and joy in every moment and may you feel love and respect for all human beings on this wonderful planet.” His fans applauded their gluten free, mountain-climbing, guru-seeking man, who so often thinks outside the box. His critics bristled: “We’re in an international health crisis, you won’t get vaccinated to protect others, yet you speak of ‘love and respect for all human beings.’”
Soon two independent panels, for reasons that are not that clear, gave Novak a medical exemption that seemingly would have let him into Australia. Perhaps, some speculated, the independent panels viewed contracting COVID in the past six months as a valid exemption from vaccination.
The news hit hard in Australia – and in Melbourne. The city had endured the world’s longest cumulative lockdown and the entire nation was livid. Headlines blared. Local Channel Ten said, “In the end, people are sick of superstars being given special treatment.” One Aussie tweeted, “This is bulls–t and everyone can see it’s bulls–t.” Another claimed, “Whoever knocks Djokovic out of the Australian Open may never need to buy a beer [in Australia] again.” Karen Sweeney tweeted, “Djokovic is about to find out what it is like to be despised by all of Australia. We’re all laid back until we’re not. #GetVaccinated.” The former Aussie ATP player Sam Groth contended the situation “spits in the eyes of all Australians.”
Even the beloved icon Rod Laver said, “If he’s got a reason for (the exemption) then…we should know it. Yes, you’re a great player and…[have] won so many tournaments, so it can’t be physical. So what is the problem?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, when Nole arrived Down Under, the hard court whiz who’d lifted nine Australian Open trophies in glory faced a hard reality. For over eight hours he was held alone without his phone in a Melbourne airport isolation room guarded by the police. Officials noted that Novak had sought entry with a visa that did not permit medical exemptions for being unvaccinated. We wondered what fury the fiery Novak might have felt in those solitary hours.
Clearly an immovable object – sport’s most impactful and adamant vaccine denier – had met an unstoppable force – the no-nonsense Australian Border Force.
For months Djokovic has starred in an almost unending, often tedious soap opera. Commentator Mark Petchy tweeted, “Can’t believe the utter waste of time being spent on whether Novak is vaccinated…whether he will be in Australia or not. [This] makes the sport look so lightweight.” Soon the Serb was dubbed “Novaxx Djokovic.”
In 1973, as part of a power struggle, many ATP players boycotted Wimbledon. In 1974, the then dominant Jimmy Connors was banned from the French Open for playing World TeamTennis. But, of late, no top champion has not been certified to compete in a major. Surely a path would be found for Nole to play.
Then again, Australia’s COVID approach has been fierce. Good luck Down Under if you want to go from one state to another, even if your mother is dying. Exceptions are rare. A record number of new infections were surging and Aussie politicians had long made it clear there would be no shortcuts for athletic celebrities. Few other nations have had more stringent restrictions. Millions had sacrificed mightily. So letting in one of the world’s fittest athletes without the poke would have been a poke in the eye – and a political bombshell.
So when the border control banned Novak and told him he’d have to leave because he couldn’t justify the grounds for his exemption, Aussie Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to applaud the move: “There are no special exceptions. Rules are rules.” In contrast, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic phoned his country’s most famous citizen. He then insisted that “the whole of Serbia is with him and our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately. In line with all norms of international law, Serbia will fight for Novak, truth and justice.”
Serbian diplomats in Canberra made formal objections to Australia. In Serbia, Australian diplomats were called in for explanations. A Melbourne court ruled that Novak could not be deported until a more extensive hearing was held on January 10th. In the meantime, Nole was placed in the Park hotel immigration hotel, a retention facility where you couldn’t open the windows and the food was once said to have maggots.
His mother Dijana said, “They are keeping him like a prisoner. It’s just not fair – it’s not human. I hope he will stay strong…I hope he will win. His accommodation [is] just some small, immigration hotel…with bugs. It’s all dirty, the food is terrible. They don’t want to give him a chance to move to a better hotel or a rented house.”
Nole’s continually provocative father Srdjan, who often sees his son as a victim, said, “Tonight they can throw him in the dungeon. Tomorrow they can put him in chains. The truth is he’s like water, and water paves its own path. Novak is the Spartacus of the new world, which won’t tolerate injustice…Jesus was crucified and everything was done to him, and he endured, he is still alive among us. They are trying to crucify Novak in the same way, to underestimate him, to throw him to his knees, to do everything to him.” He contended, “Shame on [them]…to do [this to] the best athlete, tennis player in the world.”
As for Rafa Nadal, the Spaniard said, “What is happening is not good…It’s normal that the people here in Australia get very frustrated…because they have been going through a lot of very hard lockdowns…I believe in what the people who know about medicine say, and if they say…we need to get vaccinated, we need to get the vaccine…If you do this you don’t have any problems to play here. That’s the only clear thing…Everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences…He knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, so he makes his own decision…There are rules, and if you don’t want to get the vaccine, then you can have some troubles…[But] a lot of people had been dying…My feeling is…the vaccine is the only way to stop this pandemic.”
Recently, it was revealed that Czech Renata Voracova, the world’s No. 81 doubles player, had already begun competing using the same medical exemption as Nole. She was then detained. Some have questioned the role of Tennis Australia. Many have offered wide-ranging views and French President Emmanuel Macron indicated unvaccinated players would not be able to play at the French Open.
This was the third year the Australian Open faced intense pre-tourney issues. In 2019 fires ravished the continent. Last year, draconian COVID quarantines were implemented. Now the Novaxx melodrama rages on. There were demonstrations in Melbourne and Serbia. All this occurred more than a week before an Australian Open tennis ball was struck. Rod Laver said, “I think it might get ugly.”