After a dramatic weeklong fight with the world’s top men’s tennis player, Australia’s immigration authorities wisely decided to revoke Novak Djokovic’s visa a second time because he failed to meet the country’s COVID-19 requirements. Although the Australian authorities and tennis officials aren’t blameless, this is a huge, self-inflicted public-relations crisis for Djokovic that has smeared his legacy.
The 34-year-old reigning Australian Open champion could easily have defended his title by getting a safe, highly effective vaccine that would protect him and others from the coronavirus. Instead, he, like some other high-profile athletes, has made a spectacle of trying to bend the rules—thereby showing that, besides COVID, the other sickness the world is fighting is selfishness.
Yesterday, the Australian immigration minister, Alex Hawke, released a statement explaining that his decision to again deny Djokovic the opportunity to compete for his 10th Australian Open title in Melbourne was made “on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.” Djokovic’s legal team is appealing that judgment. But if Djokovic had a sliver of good sense and any respect for his sport, he would accept the consequences and leave the country.
Unfortunately, the tennis star is among the famous athletes who’d rather create chaos around them than get their shots. In the United States, the Green Bay Packers indulged their quarterback Aaron Rodgers this season as he misled reporters and fans into thinking he had been vaccinated. Even though the Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving cannot legally play home games because of New York City’s vaccination mandate, the team brought him back anyway—fueling some speculation that the team might just accept a $5,000-a-game fine and let him play. (Fortunately, the NBA probably would not allow this.)
Djokovic has enablers too. Both Tennis Australia—the group that organizes the Australian Open—and certain government officials seem to have given Djokovic false confidence that the medical exemption he received to participate in the Open would hold up under wider scrutiny. It didn’t. According to court documents, Djokovic received an exemption from tournament organizers because he had tested positive for COVID-19 in December. A doctor and an independent panel appointed by the state of Victoria, where the Open is held, also reportedly supported Djokovic receiving an exemption.
But in no way does that absolve Djokovic, who brought a lot of unnecessary drama with him to Australia.
After he landed in the country and was thoroughly questioned at the airport by immigration officers, Djokovic was denied entry and his visa was canceled. He was then taken to a detention hotel, where he spent several days as his legal team challenged the ruling. At first, Djokovic seemed likely to get his way. Four days after he was taken into custody, a federal judge reinstated Djokovic’s visa and immediately instructed authorities to release him—not because the athlete was proved to have been in the right, but because the judge felt that Djokovic had not been given adequate time to respond to the threat of a visa cancellation.
But his fortunes turned again when immigration officials realized that he had not been fully truthful in his statements. Djokovic admitted in an Instagram post that he never disclosed on his travel-declaration form that he’d visited multiple countries in the two weeks prior to arriving in Australia. Djokovic excused it as an “administrative error” and blamed his agent for incorrectly filling out the paperwork. A more plausible explanation is that Djokovic was just hell-bent on skating past the rules.
The media’s close scrutiny of his schedule and social-media posts also revealed that he had been attending public events in his native Serbia around the time in mid-December when he said he had tested positive for the coronavirus. That conduct might be more forgivable if his behavior earlier in the pandemic hadn’t been equally reckless.
Last June, Djokovic held a charity tennis tournament in Serbia that turned into a coronavirus super–spreader event. Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, tested positive as well as several other international tennis professionals who attended. Numerous photos and videos emerged of Djokovic and other participants maskless, not socially distancing, hugging, and partying. Even Nick Kyrgios, a polarizing player who is no stranger to thoughtless behavior, blasted Djokovic and the other players on social media. Kyrgios tweeted: “Prayers up to all the players that have contracted COVID-19. Don’t @ me for anything I’ve done that has been ‘irresponsible’ or classified as ‘stupidity’ — this takes the cake.”
Djokovic is also a hypocrite. When the tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open last year, citing how the mandatory press conferences jeopardized her mental health, Djokovic was among the voices sternly insisting that rules are rules. “I understand that press conferences sometimes can be very unpleasant,” Djokovic said at the time. “And it’s not something that you enjoy, always, you know, especially if you lose a match or something like this. But it is part of the sport and part of your life on the tour. This is something we have to do, otherwise, we will get fined.”
Under Australian law, Djokovic could now be banned from obtaining a visa from the country for three years if he is deported. Djokovic has won 20 men’s Grand Slam titles and is tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most of all time. If competing in the Australian Open is off the table for the foreseeable future, it could threaten Djokovic’s opportunity to stand alone in tennis history.
Djokovic has been a vaccine skeptic from the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, and has never hidden his staunch opposition to vaccine mandates. That an athlete of his fame is using his platform in such a destructive fashion is bad enough; even more despicable is that Djokovic seems so comfortable exploiting his immense privilege to endanger the health and safety of others. It is especially insulting to the Australian people, who have adhered to some of the strictest restrictions during the pandemic in an effort to keep their hospitalizations and death rates low.
Sacrificing is what caring communities do—and it’s something Djokovic knows nothing about. As the top player in men’s tennis, Djokovic has a responsibility to be a good ambassador for his sport. But that, like Australia’s COVID rules, is just another requirement that he’s failed to meet.