This is not the place a high-calibre professional athlete wants to be, a week before tennis' first Grand Slam event of the year begins in Melbourne. No practice courts, no hitting partners (the four walls of his room don't count). Djokovic is one win away from holding the outright number of majors in the men's game. Locked on 20 with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, he was the clear favourite to win the Australian Open and take his tally to 21. That was until visa-gate.
Djokovic – a self-confessed anti-vaxxer – believed he'd found a medical exemption to allow him (a) permission to play the Australian Open and (b) safe passage into the country, owing to positive Covid-19 test in the middle of last month. Border Force officials checked his documents upon arrival at Tullamarine Airport and decided he did not have required proof. Since then, he's been held by the authorities and kept in a room at the Park Hotel while a whirlwind of drama goes on around him. The latest twist: suggestions Tennis Australia misguided players by saying a recent positive test would allow entry into the country. Reports on Saturday claim that health authorities told the governing body on two occasions that exemptions don’t exist for those who have recently contracted the virus.
There are so many strands to this story. And whatever happens next, be it Djokovic is deported or allowed to play in Melbourne, the ramifications will be huge.
Djokovic was calm in an Instagram post from his room on Friday, thanking all his fans for their support, but his loved ones have been shouting. Srdjan, his father, suggested that his son's treatment was up there with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Mother Dijana reckons Djokovic is being treated like a "prisoner", while his wife Jelena said "the only law that we should all respect across every single border is love and respect for another human being". While this is tricky for the Djokovic family, they must remember that their son/husband is awaiting an immigration green light and is not on death row.
Djokovic is an emotional person and an increasingly emotive subject. Despite his immense talent and clear intelligence, wit and charm, he is not universally popular. He has a temper, an uglier side. This is a player who was disqualified at the 2020 US Open for striking a line umpire with a ball, with little contrition. He is a magnificent champion but his PR ratings are falling.
His stance against vaccination is not helping him. Even before he touched down in Australia, he took to social media to crow about a "medical exemption". It backfired on him, because while he was in the air, many others took umbrage at perceived preferential treatment over people who have been unable to return home to Australia – some Australians haven't even been allowed to travel to other states within the country. The zero-tolerance approach to Covid is different to many, but has to be respected. Getting into Australia is tough at the best of times. In a pandemic, even more so. Vaccination is mandatory, unless your excuse is foolproof.
Almost all tennis players have taken the jab. The majority support the Australian government's policy. Rafael Nadal explained that Djokovic is entitled to his own views but must respect the rules and be aware of what consequences his actions have, although the Serb found an unlikely ally in Nick Kyrgios, who said the saga is doing his homeland no good at all.
Djokovic has always been a holistic fellow, deep even. He's spoken about spending time with wolves as a child and tries to heal naturally rather than opt for surgery. He avoids gluten, and very often meat and dairy. It is no surprise that he is not vaccinated. Ultimately, and whatever side of the fence you sit on, it is his choice.
If acting upon the (incorrect) guidance from Tennis Australia, then he can hide behind their bungles, especially if the advice he was given prior to leaving Europe was incorrect. Some will also argue Djokovic has been caught in a political storm. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not popular ahead of May's elections and there's a chance he and his government have reacted to the upsurge of disdain from many people about letting Djokovic in. Tennis Australia are culpable too – the deportation of Czech player Renata Voracova due to a revoked visa, after she played a match in Melbourne, is a terrible look. The key parties don't seem on the same page.
If Djokovic is allowed to play, then how the fans and Australian public treat him will be fascinating. Boos aren’t out of the question – even taking into account his popularity from before. And how will his opponents think? A stronger desire to beat him, or fear of a caged animal released into the wild. Djokovic will be out to destroy every man in his path and win the title. It would add a bombastic layer to an already intriguing tournament.
Sent home, though, and the shockwaves through the sport will be seismic. One of tennis' greatest champions, denied the chance to play despite thinking he would be able to. You have to wonder if Djokovic would ever return to Australia, which is a crazy thought given 45 per cent of his Slams have been won there.
His critics will say it's simple: stick a needle in your arm and get vaccinated. The thing is, like this whole pandemic, it is not that simple. But whatever direction you decide to point the finger of blame, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Djokovic’s incredible achievements on the court are being shrouded by events off it.