Serbia's Novak Djokovic, the world number one, fought against deportation from Australia on January 6, 2022, after the government revoked his visa for failing to meet pandemic vaccine entry requirements. Image Credit: AFP

What was Novak Djokovic thinking? Did he really believe that he could play the Australian Open without being vaccinated? He nearly pulled it off. The Serbian tennis star made it to Melbourne with a “medical exemption” from the Victoria state, only for the Australian Border Force to revoke his visa.

Djokovic must have thought he could bend the COVID-19 rules to defend his Australian Open title. The organisers, who seemed keen to have the world’s number one tennis player at Melbourne Park on January 17, said two medical boards reviewed Djokovic’s request.

Reports say Djokovic may have relied on a previous COVID infection to claim the exemption. That is not sufficient grounds for an exemption in Australia. Djokovic had tested positive in June 2020 after playing exhibition matches he organised in Serbia and Croatia without observing COVID protocol.

Medical exemptions are for people who deserve it, for people who cannot receive the vaccines due to their medical conditions. So far, neither Djokovic nor the organisers have revealed the grounds for exemption. Well, that’s understandable. It’s a matter of privacy.

Alright, we don’t know why Djokovic sought exemption, but we are fully aware of the Serbian’s stance on vaccines. He’s a known anti-vaxxer who has refused to divulge his vaccine status. These are his words on the COVID vaccine in April 2020: “Personally, I am not pro-vaccines. I would not like it for someone to compel me to be vaccinated so I can travel.”

So it’s clear that Djokovic was trying to circumvent the COVID-19 rules in Australia through a “medical exemption”. That’s galling at a time when Omicron cases have exploded worldwide. Sportspeople, star players and celebrities are role models, and players like Djokovic are setting a bad example under the garb of freedom of choice.

A protester holds signs outside the Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is reported to be living, in Melbourne on January 6, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Nadal, who sympathised with Djokovic’s plight, said the Serb knew for months he could potentially face problems if he arrived without being vaccinated. “It’s normal that the people here in Australia get very frustrated with the case because they have been going through a lot of very hard lockdowns...,” the Spaniard added. Clearly, Djokovic does not share Nadal’s understanding of Australia’s COVID rules and the rising Omicron cases in the country.

The Serbian tennis star may have won 20 Grand Slams, but he’s a person like any other. He has to follow the rules like the rest of us. By opting for an exemption, he’s thumbing noses at vaccinated people. That too in a country like Australia where thousands of citizens cannot return due to its stringent COVID rules. Residents of Victoria have suffered the worst as interstate travel was constrained for the last two years by some of the strictest COVID measures in the world.

Now the question is: why did the Australian government react so late? They could have acted as soon as Victoria announced the exemption. That would have saved all the embarrassment for Djokovic. But they didn’t, which gives rise to the speculation that the backlash on social media prompted the visa revocation. It could well be. Other reports point to a tug of war between the federal and Victoria governments.

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If Canberra had acted swiftly, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s words — “rules are rules, and there are no special cases” — would have carried more weight. Since Victoria no longer supports the visa for Djokovic, Australia should have sent him back to Serbia.

The Australian Open is 11 days away, and Djokovic spends his time in the Park Hotel, a quarantine facility in Melbourne, awaiting the verdict on his appeal against the visa cancellation. The court has adjourned till Monday morning. Some say the issue could go all the way to the high court, as a diplomatic furore between Australia and Serbia rages in the background.

So who’s at fault? Djokovic, Victoria or Australia? All of them are to blame. This is a needless distraction when the world is buffeted by Omicron. We are living in a global pandemic. More common sense and abundant caution are the need of the hour.