220111 Djokovic
A billboard depicting Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic on a building in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. Image Credit: AP

The one thing left to say about the saga that culminated on Sunday with the deportation by the Australian authorities of tennis star Novak Djokovic is that it was not about tennis. It was about the law and about how no individual is or should ever at any time be above it.

If, unlike everyone and his uncle around the world, you have not followed this saga, you must hail from Mars, and as a Martian you deserve a recap.

Novak Djokovic, arguably the world’s best tennis player, who arrived in Australia on Jan. 5, where he was scheduled to play on Monday in the Australian Open and where he hoped to win a record-breaking 21st men’s Grand Slam, was stopped in his tracks soon after he set foot in the country.

The athlete, a vaccine sceptic, had arrived unvaccinated in a country with tough Covid rules, where a staggering 92 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated and where authorities last year had demanded that all athletes competing in this month’s tournament should also be likewise vaccinated.

The long and short of it was that Novak Djokovic was unvaxed, so Novak Djokovic was deported. Case closed.

More on the Djokovic saga

The decision by the government to give the man the boot, after 12 days of legal wrangling, proved popular with the Aussie public, who had begun to call him, in a jocular spin on his name, Novax Djocovid. It proved equally popular, truth be told, with those of us who had had it up to here reading about this athlete who had convinced himself that his status as a celebrity placed him above the law.

Though we, ordinary, dreary people going about our business, are running out patience with mast mandates, lockdowns, social distancing and the rest of it, we nevertheless remain aware that the recent pace and direction of the pandemic demands we be mindful of the rules that govern our quotidian lives in these difficult times — times when we cannot let our guard down. And those rules apply in equal measure to celebrated tennis stars as they do to us.

An unvaccinated tennis player, like a drunk driver, you will agree, is a danger not just to himself but to others.

Irresponsible attitude

Consider this: On Dec. 16, Djokovic had taken a Coronavirus test in Belgrade, Serbia, his native land, and received a positive result. Yet, a day later, though he was infected, he attended a tennis event where, unconcerned about the danger he posed, he presented awards to children! There are certain acts that cross over from being merely irresponsible to being unpardonably criminal, and that act, I say, most assuredly qualifies as such.

Here’s where it now stands. The problems that Djokovic faced in Australia, including — hold on to your Schadenfreude hat — the five days he spent holed up at a hotel reserved for refugees and asylum seekers, might not end in Australia.

“Novak Djokovic’s ordeal in Australia may presage other battles ahead as the attitudes of sporting bodies, health authorities and public opinion harden toward the unvaccinated”, a news report in the New York Times had it on Sunday."

Obstacles ahead

"While it is highly unlikely that Djokovic, an outspoken vaccine sceptic, will find himself sequestered again in any other country over visa issues, his trouble in Melbourne is an indication of some of the obstacles he could face in the months ahead if he continues to try to travel the world without being vaccinated for Covid-19”.

A case in point? At the French Open in May — which annually is preceded by the Australian Open and followed by Wimbledon and then finally the US Open — all tennis players will be subject to the country’s vaccine pass law, which requires people to have vaccine certificates to enter restaurants, cafés, movie theatres and, yes, sports arenas.

And one imagines that the French authorities, like their Aussie counterparts, don’t believe that laws are made to be broken, even by famous men

Some have argued that the three-judge panel in an Australian federal court that ordered Djokovic deported on Sunday did so to make an example of him, namely, an example of the fate that awaited celebrities who feel that their sense of entitlement shields them against the law of the land.

A divisive debate

I argue instead the panel’s ruling highlights this issue: When it comes, as it does in this case, to the divisive debate over the right of the individual to remain unvaccinated versus the community’s collective responsibility to protect itself against that individual, the right of the latter dominates.

In other words, the judges, shall we say, served the tennis player with a judgement he would do well to abide by in the future.

Folks, the Djokovic mess is behind us and the fun of the Grand Slam is before us, right through Jan. 30. So let’s roll.

This columnist, a tennis fan since his teens, will sit glued to his television screen watching the games, while every now and again humming Bob Marley’s lyrics to himself, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, cause everything is gonna be all right”.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile