Novak Djokovic, the world’s top tennis player, spent the entire day Wednesday travelling from Dubai to Australia, where he was scheduled to begin his defence of the Australian Open singles title.
Following a 12-hour standoff with government officials at Melbourne Airport, where he was held in a room overnight over issues about the evidence supporting a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine, he was told he would have to leave the country on Thursday. The exemption was designed to allow Djokovic, a 20-time Grand Slam winner and one of sports’ biggest names, to compete in the Australian Open despite his lack of vaccination.
According to Reuters, the Serbian player, who is aiming for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam victory at the Open commencing Jan. 17, will file an injunction to prevent him from being sent back. Djokovic, meanwhile, was on his way to a Melbourne hotel.
The sequence of events represented a startling 180-degree turn for Djokovic, who went from receiving special, last-minute permission to enter Australia, to boarding an intercontinental flight, to being essentially told by Australia’s prime minister that he was not welcome in the country in less than 24 hours.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vui even got involved at one point, speaking with Djokovic and criticising Australia’s handling of the country’s most famous athlete.
During the past two years, the epidemic has caused havoc on sports in a variety of ways. The Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been postponed for a year. Major sporting events were held in stadiums that were nearly empty. After testing positive for the virus, star players were placed in isolation just before their tournament.
The situation with Djokovic, one of the sport’s most divisive players, was a match for any of them. It was based on a clash between a sports superstar and the most powerful leader in one of the world’s most rich countries, in which government officials, citizens, the media, and even some fellow athletes questioned the exemption, causing the abrupt shift.
The decision is likely to become another flashpoint in the discussion over vaccines and how the pandemic should be treated today, particularly in Australia, where egalitarianism is held in high regard — and where “the tennis,” as the Open is known, is adored by a nation of sports fans.
The Australian Border Force said in a statement on Thursday that it will “continue to verify that people who arrive at our border comply with our laws and entry criteria.” Mr. Djokovic’s visa was then cancelled after he failed to give acceptable evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, according to the ABF.”
It was the latest and possibly the most vexing dispute of Djokovic’s career, nearly all of which were precipitated by the behaviour of a champion who can be as obstinate and unyielding off the court as he is on it.
Djokovic has never been shy about expressing his unconventional views on science and medicine (he once expressed support for the idea that prayer and belief could purify contaminated water), and he has spoken out against vaccine mandates on multiple occasions, claiming that vaccination is a private and personal decision that should not be mandated. He did not say if he had been vaccinated until this week.
Djokovic revealed on Twitter on Tuesday that he had secured a medical exemption from the requirement that all visitors to the nation be vaccinated or placed in quarantine for 14 days. Later, he boarded a jet from Dubai heading for Australia.
Tennis Australia’s chief executive, Craig Tiley, stated later that day that players requesting an exemption had to pass muster with two committees of medical specialists. To guarantee privacy, personal information was redacted during the procedure.