Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic at the Melbourne airport before boarding a flight, after the Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Melbourne on January 16, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Did Novak Djokovic think he could defend his Australian Open title without being vaccinated? It seems so after his trenchant fight to keep the visa to play in Melbourne. If that’s true, the Serbian doesn’t deserve any sympathy for his troubles. For, he brought it upon himself.

Djokovic and his team certainly must have been aware of the COVID rules in Australia. But the turn of events gives the impression that he might have used his status as the world number one and the Australian Open champion to circumvent the rules.

The Victoria government and Tennis Australia played into the Serbian’s hands, but not the federal government. This is why Djokovic flew out, having lost the bid to overturn Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s decision to cancel his visa. It’s the only logical conclusion to a saga that has meandered over 10 days since his arrival in Melbourne on January 5.

Aiming for a grand slam record

The Serbian’s eagerness to play in the Australian Open is understandable. A win would have given him the 21st grand slam title, making him the most successful singles player in tennis history.

There was only a minor hitch: a double vaccination against the new coronavirus. For a self-proclaimed anti-vaxer like Djokovic, the only recourse was an exemption. A COVID infection in December provided the reason to evade the vaccination requirement. The rest is perplexing.

If a COVID infection is not enough to provide “medical exemption”, why did the Victoria medical board clear Djokovic? What was Tennis Australia thinking? Looks like they were unaware of the rules. If these two bodies had been clear about the situation, Djokovic wouldn’t have landed in Australia.

When he landed in Melbourne, the Australian Border Force said the medical exemption is not valid, and a full vaccination is mandatory. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says rules are rules. That begs the question, why was the “medical exemption” given in the first place?

Djokovic’s stance against vaccination and his public appearances after he suspected a COVID infection didn’t help his cause. And the error in his travel declaration made matters worse. The fury against Djokovic on social media and the street protests against his detention seemed to have forced the minister’s hand.

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Hawke is reported to have said that a visa to Djokovic will fan anti-vaxer sentiment and spark civil unrest. That’s something Australia wants to avoid when Omicron cases have exploded across the country. A country where people suffered immensely under lockdowns and other restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID.

When Djokovic left for Belgrade, the lingering feeling is that all this drama was avoidable. The Serbian shouldn’t have tried to dodge the rules. The Victoria medical board should have sought federal clearance before providing the medical exemption, and Tennis Australia should have been more diligent. Even the federal government should have acted faster: they could have nixed the medical exemption before Djokovic landed in Melbourne.

Turned out to be a real mess. Rules are rules, but they have to be applied uniformly and swiftly. I guess this is a lesson for all parties.

Now, let’s get back to tennis.