Credit: Ben Hershey via Unsplash

Djokovic Down Under: the controversy with the 2022 Australian Open

By Claire Thomson

Tennis player Novak Djokovic faces criticism over his vaccination status and visa after initially being denied entry to Australia for the Australian Open.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already had a major impact on the sporting world and sparked a myriad of controversies surrounding the ability and freedom of athletes to travel and compete across the globe. 2021 revolutionised the face of sport as world-class athletes fought to prioritise themselves, their wellbeing and their rights, all whilst overcoming barriers outwith their control. However, whilst the majority of these movements have had a positive, utilitarian impact for sport and athletes, the latest controversy surrounding men’s world No 1 ranked tennis player, Novak Djokovic, has created discussion, worldwide, on a humanitarian level.

Unarguably one of the most famous tennis players of all time, Novak Djokovic has come under fire as he arrived in Australia to defend his Australian Open title and become the most decorated player in history. After having his visa, which would allow him entry to the country, revoked suddenly on his arrival in Melbourne on Wednesday 5 January for failing to provide “appropriate evidence”, the previous nine-time winner of the tournament was detained in an immigration detention hotel alongside asylum seekers whilst awaiting his court hearing on Monday 10 January. The 34-year-old has since been granted a reinstatement on his visa following the confirmation of a medical exemption to compete by two independent medical panels organised by Tennis Australia, the national governing body for the event, and Victoria state, as well as a recent positive PCR test for Covid-19. For many, the conversation is purely centred around the tournament itself and the tennis world, however it extends so much further to the larger, more universal issue of immigration, upper-class privileges and vaccinations.

“The previous nine-time winner of the tournament was detained in an immigration detention hotel…”

Described in the media as a “polarising player”, Djokovic has attracted a plethora of criticisms since the early stages of the pandemic when he was among several players who recorded a positive test for the virus at his Adria Tour event, where there was no social distancing and physical contact between players. This was followed by further frustration a year ago when he requested a relaxation of quarantine rules to the Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, suggesting measures such as a reduced isolation period on arrival and players quarantining in private houses with tennis courts. Adjectives such as “selfish, difficult and ungrateful” previously labelled to the Serb have reared their ugly heads once again surrounding his medical exemption and opposition to vaccinations. In a country, where inhabitants have faced some of the toughest and strictest Covid-19 restrictions with many still unable to travel between states or internationally, it’s hardly surprising that once again Djokovic has divided opinions. 

It cannot be denied that everyone has the right to refuse a vaccination, however, in the current climate, it is these choices that reflect our freedom to participate in large-scale events and travel, whether that be nationally or internationally. As within every walk of life, decisions have consequences. In an interview about Djokovic and the upcoming Australian Open, fellow competitor and world-class tennis player, Rafael Nadal, gave his grievances towards his opponent, whilst the situation spread uncontrollably throughout the media and was made very public. Nadal said: “I think if he wanted, he would be playing here in Australia without a problem… He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences… Of course I don’t like the situation that is happening. In some ways, I feel sorry for him. But at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, so he makes his own decision”. 

“I think if he wanted, he would be playing here in Australia without a problem… He made his own decisions.”

Rafael Nadal on Novak Djokovic

The controversy over vaccinations extends further to the wider world, but in this situation, it is not the vaccination itself that is the main issue. The question truly lies in whether famous athletes and sports stars should be treated equally as everyone else. Naturally, regardless of personal opinion, Djokovic is allowed to be opposed to vaccinations and remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus. However, in the same breath, Australia can also choose to permit or deny him entry to the country and make him eligible for deportation if border and government officials believe that his visa application is fraudulent. It is the privilege of these “celebrity-like characters” that is driving mass frustration throughout the general public. There should be no favouritism or elitism when it comes to the pandemic. Everyone has suffered through the challenges of grief, lockdowns and restrictions that no one deserves to be exempt with exceptional circumstances and concrete evidence. Above that, there is always the case of liability. At this stage, over two years on, vaccination is one of the only ways to reinstate a form of normality into society. It is to help protect others as well as yourself, an athletes, celebrities, general members of the public have the responsibility to limit the transmission of the virus when travelling to a new area. So whilst Djokovic could be commended for being given a medical exemption to play and has every right now to take part and try to win again, morally did he make the right decision, or has he abused his pro-star athlete status for purely selfish reasons?

“There should be no favouritism or elitism when it comes to the pandemic.”

By no means is Novak Djokovic the only unvaccinated sports star, with several others also being given medical exemptions for the Australian Open alone, but it is the lack of clarity throughout and double standards presented by his fans and family members that has blown up the situation. There is no doubt that the issue has surpassed the boundaries of the sporting world, to become now a political debacle. The effects that it has had on the reputation of tennis and Djokovic, himself, are yet to become clear, but the Australian Open will not be lacking its share of media coverage over the next few weeks. As of yesterday (11 January), a little under a week before the tournament begins, Djokovic is scheduled to compete with many other famous athletes wishing him the best of luck. He believes that this will motivate him more to succeed and defend his title once again. 


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