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Novak Djokovic vs. Australia: How Did We Get Here?

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2022-01-16

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The world No. 1 is set to be deported from Australia and removed from the Australian Open draw after a multiweek standoff with the country’s government.

Novak Djokovic hasn’t just been the center of the sporting world for the past two weeks; he’s been the catalyst for international political conflict. After choosing not to get vaccinated for COVID-19, he was granted a medical exemption to play in the Australian Open, a tournament played in a country with strict vaccine mandates and lockdown policies.

But when he arrived in Melbourne, Djokovic's visa was canceled and he was refused entry to the country. Then the Australian government put him into a detention hotel where it houses refugees, sometimes for years. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Djokovic wouldn't "be treated any different to anyone else," while the star’s treatment was criticized by the Serbian president as an affront to the entire country. Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, compared his son’s detention to the crucifixion of Jesus.

On Jan. 10, after Djokovic’s legal team successfully appealed the decision to deny him entry, he was allowed into Melbourne and began preparing to win his fourth-consecutive Open. Then, on Friday, the Australian immigration minister overturned that decision, signaling Djokovic’s imminent deportation and removal from the Open. After a final appeal was denied on Jan. 16, Djokovic is headed out of Australia.

So, how did we get here? Here’s a timeline of all things Djokovic since the beginning of the pandemic:

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Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Feb. 2, 2020: With the world still largely in pre-pandemic mode, Djokovic wins his eighth Australian Open and his 17th major, going the distance against Dominic Thiem in the final.

SI said : “We spend way too much time talking about what Djokovic isn’t. Let’s talk about what he IS. Relentless. Reliable. Resourceful. He’s up to 17 majors now, within three of [Roger] Federer. (Last time it was this close? 3–0 and Djokovic was 15 years old.) We talk about his haul of Aussie Open titles—eight and counting; with zero losses in the final—but let’s remember, he’s won more majors outside of Melbourne than Agassi, Lendl, McEnroe et al. won total.”

May 7, 2020 : In a livestream with the wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh, who has claimed that he can “use the scientific method to create alchemy,” Djokovic says he believes that positive thinking can detoxify water . This is not the first time Djokovic has expressed confidence in pseudoscience. In 2010 he famously said that his gluten intolerance was diagnosed when a nutritionist held a piece of white bread to his stomach and Djokovic felt himself getting weaker.

SI said: “It’s hard to look away from the Galaxy Brain–ness of it all. The omnipresence of a man who believes his gluten intolerance was diagnosed when he held a piece of white bread to his stomach, and who preaches his love for that kind of pseudoscience for all to hear.”

April 21, 2020: Djokovic declares that even if a COVID-19 vaccine was developed, he would be opposed to receiving it, saying on Facebook Live: “Personally, I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel. … But if it becomes compulsory, what will happen? I will have to make a decision.”

SI said: “There are unmistakable instances of virtue. He showed more leadership and compassion than any tennis administrator, in pushing for a player-driven relief fund . … Then a few days later he frittered away goodwill with his irresponsible position on vaccines and a regrettable choice of words, especially during a global pandemic.”

June 2020: While the ATP schedule goes on pause for what would last four months, Djokovic hosts a charity tennis tournament in Serbia and Croatia that leads to the infection of a number of ATP players. Backlash against the event grows after footage surfaces of Djokovic, Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov dancing in a crowded Belgrade nightclub. On June 23, Djokovic becomes one of the first tennis stars known to have contracted COVID-19.

SI said : “Emboldened by his loyal supporters, and by now deeply convinced of his invincibility, he held a celebration throughout his land, a great, multiday traveling feast. He invited his friends and colleagues. The pandemic sweeping the world? Pah! This was an occasion to showcase his immunity, literally his immortality.”

Sept. 6, 2020: After laying low for a few months following the Adria Tour debacle, Djokovic enters the U.S. Open as the favorite—but he is defaulted in the fourth round after accidentally hitting a lineswoman with a ball between points.

SI said: “You know what would mark a terrible outcome for everybody? Inconsistent application of rules. It would have been an absolute disaster if Djokovic—having committed an unambiguous violation with an unambiguous punishment—had gotten off on a technicality. Credit the officials for resisting any impulse to make an exception for a star.”

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Al Bello/Getty Images

Feb. 21, 2021: Djokovic wins his ninth—and third consecutive—Australian Open title, throttling Daniil Medvedev in the final.

SI said: “In many ways, this was peak Djokovic. He didn’t win with curlicues and dazzling shotmaking, so much as he humiliated and demoralized the opponent with precision, especially off the return of serve. With each serve that would have been an ace against other players, with each blazing stroke Djokovic returned like Aaron Sorkin dialogue, Medvedev’s confidence molted away. In the end, Djokovic played on his terms and prevailed in one of his easiest matches.”

June 13, 2021: Djokovic wins his second French Open and his 19th major, beating Rafael Nadal in a lengthy semifinal match and recovering from a two-set deficit in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas.

SI said: “As for Djokovic, his closing skills have never been in doubt. Neither have his clay-court skills. And now he heads to the grass, which ironically might be his third-best surface. But he nevertheless arrives at Wimbledon as the defending champion. He will try to pull off the channel double—Wimbledon and the French Open—and become the first player to do so in more than a decade. He will try to equal Federer and Nadal and win his 20th major title. And he comes in with more than a little momentum. He didn’t just win the title in Paris. He seems to have won something much greater.”

July 12, 2021: Djokovic wins his sixth Wimbledon title—and his 20th major, tying Nadal and Federer. Heading into the U.S. Open, the calendar-year Slam is now in play for the first time in Djokovic’s (or Federer’s, or Nadal’s) careers.

SI said: “What must make this title particularly demoralizing for the field: Djokovic was opportunistic but seldom made to play his best tennis. And the closer opponents got, the more accurate he became. Resistance really was futile.”

August 2021: Djokovic flames out at the Olympics in Tokyo, finishing just off the medal stand, in fourth place. The pressure of the Golden Slam seems to be getting him during the tournament, as he smashes rackets and even throws one into the stands. He apologizes after the tournament and begins to focus on the U.S. Open.

SI said: “I’m reluctant to go here, but in service of an honest discussion: Roger Federer and Nadal don’t comport themselves like this. There are no ‘yeah, buts’ or equivalences. They don’t get defaulted from majors … and then, within a year, throw rackets into stands and smash rackets on netposts, as if they’ve learned nothing. They don’t hold superspreader events. They don’t—amid a pandemic and amid a water crisis—talk about positive energy cleaning water or take (what we will most charitably call) an ambiguous/ambivalent stance on vaccinations.”

August 2021: The ATP releases its vaccination figures before the U.S. Open, showing that only 48% of the men’s top 100 players have gotten the shot. Fans and officials must be vaccinated to attend the tournament, but players don’t have to deal with such a requirement.

Sept. 12, 2021: Djokovic loses in the final of the U.S. Open to Medvedev in straight sets. The Grand Slam is thwarted. But, during the trophy ceremony, he cries, and the New York fans give him an ovation .

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SI said: “He didn’t make history and will be profoundly disappointed by failing in his 28th match . But let’s pause and acknowledge what Djokovic pulled off this year. No other player since Rod Laver even put himself in this position, 27–1 in major matches. Recovering from a set down eight times. Surfaces, conditions, times of day, opponents. Bravo.”

Dec. 10, 2021: The deadline to apply for a vaccine exemption to the Australian Open, in January 2022, comes and goes. Djokovic has been coy about his vaccination status throughout the fall, but sources tell Sports Illustrated that he hasn’t gotten the jab.

SI said: “At this writing, it is unclear whether Djokovic will enter … an event he has won nine times, now that the tournament has a vaccine mandate. This is a man, to mix sports metaphors, with an uncommon knack for scoring own goals .”

Dec. 16, 2021: Djokovic tests positive for COVID-19 for, at least, the second time, according to documents his lawyer will later share in court . He uses this as grounds to apply for an Australian Open medical exemption from the vaccine.

SI said: “We have this really, really damning evidence that he missed the deadline and that Tennis Australia was aware he missed the deadline. And now he’s coming into Australia because of this COVID carve-out, which seems a little strange given that if every stranded Australian national knew all you had to do to get back into the country was get COVID, they might want to do that intentionally. And then the fact that Djokovic was unmasked in public after testing positive, clearly flouting COVID protocol … he may get to play the Australian Open, but I do not think he’s won much public support.”

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Mark Baker/AP Photo

Jan. 5, 2022: Djokovic is granted an exemption from Australia’s vaccine mandate by Tennis Australia. Immediately, there is an uproar from within the Australian government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says, “There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all.”

SI said: “There’s a whole conversation that I’m a little hung up on that this—meaning rejecting Djokovic—is a political play. Like, isn’t this what governments do? They respond to the will of the people and they try to close loopholes? I don’t think it’s so bad that a government says: Wait a second, our people are really angry. Our rules seem to have been contravened. Let’s do what we can to address this. So, cynically yes, there’s an election coming up and cynically, other players have gotten in before Djokovic. But they did not gloat about it on Instagram. Anyway, I don’t think it's the biggest tragedy that a government is acting in response to political will, the fact that there is a population that’s very upset about this loophole and about athletes getting preferential treatment, and about rules being skirted if not circumvented. I don’t think it’s such a tragedy that a government would respond to that, even if you wish it hadn’t happened at this late date.”

Jan. 6, 2022: After eight hours of airport detention in Melbourne, Djokovic sees his visa canceled, and he’s denied entry to the country for failing to meet the exemption requirements.

SI said: “This element, Tennis Australia botching this, is clearly the biggest news from this in the last 24 hours. But if you told me: This sporting group in the United States with the incentive to make money is pushing around government rules so that they can make more money, I'd be like: That’s the least surprising thing I’ve ever heard . Isn’t the surprising thing here that then the government went to them and said, ‘No, f--- off’?”

Jan. 9, 2022: While he is cooped up in an immigration detention hotel—inadvertently drawing widespread attention to the treatment of refugees in Australia—Djokovic’s parents join a rally in Belgrade, Serbia, demanding his release.

Jan. 10, 2022: Djokovic’s visa is reinstated on appeal after his lawyer argues that a positive test in December superseded the country’s vaccination requirement. Hours later, Djokovic is out on the courts practicing.

SI said: “I think, if nothing else, we’ve gotten real insight into his mindset. You can’t be wired like you and I are to stare down match points at Wimbledon against Roger Federer and have no doubt in the world that you’re winning that match. That same sort of magical thinking can have some really ugly consequences.”

Jan. 12, 2022: In a statement, Djokovic blames his agent, for “tick[ing] the incorrect box” on Djokovic’s travel declaration, falsely claiming that he hadn’t visited any other countries in the past two weeks. (In fact, he’d visited Spain.) In the same statement, Djokovic admits to having attended an in-person interview less than a day after his positive test in December. He calls the breach of protocols “an error of judgement.” Meanwhile, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić calls it “a clear violation.”

Jan. 13, 2022: The Australian Open draw is revealed, with Djokovic as the No. 1 seed, even as immigration officials continue to investigate him.

Jan. 14, 2022: Australian immigration minister Alex Hawke overturns Djokovic’s visa exemption. Pending a successful appeal, the top seed will have to leave the country.

SI said: “[Djokovic’s] legal team obviously has an incentive to get [an appeal] heard very quickly. With the tournament, that’s a whole other angle about what the tournament has revealed about itself and its values. And the government has had it with Djokovic. They’ve had it with Tennis Australia. So, you know, sometimes everybody’s aligned, we need to decide this quickly and have a swift appeal. If this dragged on past Monday, there will be a lot of parties who will shrug their shoulders. So it’ll be interesting to see who wins the appeal and who wins the timing. Because if it drags on past Monday, then it’s a moot point. It doesn’t even matter.”

Jan. 16, 2022: The court dismisses the top-ranked tennis star’s appeal against a deportation order, as three Federal Court judges uphold a decision made on Friday by the immigration minister to cancel the 34-year-old Serb’s visa on public interest grounds.

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