Novak Djokovic: Health Risk or Political Pawn?


Novak Djokovic, the 20-time Grand Slam champion, has been detained and deported from Australia. He was due to defend his title at the Australian Open in Melbourne; a tournament in which he is the most successful, with nine titles. Djokovic was hoping to win his 21st Grand Slam title, which would have seen him break the record that he shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis. The ramifications of this controversial case are larger than Djokovic’s chase for his 21st Grand Slam; it is a dangerous precedent set by an Australian government entering an election year.

First, let’s look at a quick timeline of the controversy.

On December 8th, 2021 Tennis Australia, the organiser of the Australian Open, announced that anyone wishing to enter Melbourne Park must have a proof of vaccination or a valid medical exemption approved by two separate panels of independent Australian medical officials. On December 30th, Djokovic received a letter stating that he has been approved for a medical exemption. Both panels were “blind”, which meant that the panelists did not know the identity of the person they were reviewing. Tennis Australia announced that 26 people applied for a medical exemption and only a “handful” were approved. It was later revealed that Djokovic was given an exemption due to a recent exposure to COVID-19.

On January 5th, Djokovic began travel to Australia and was detained by immigration officials on arrival, his visa was subsequently revoked. He was transferred to the Park Hotel controlled by the immigration police to hold other detainees or asylum seekers. On January 10th, Djokovic’s lawyers launched a challenge in Australian Federal Circuit Court to his potential deportation. This challenge was successful and he was released after four days in detention. Following his release, doubts surrounding the validity of his border entry form arose and were later confirmed. He had not disclosed his travel in the previous 14 days prior to entering Australia. Djokovic states that his agent made an “administrative mistake”. Four days later, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, personally cancelled Djokovic’s visa, causing him to return to detention. Mr Hawke has stated that Djokovic not only lied on his entry form but posed a health risk in Australia by “causing an increase in anti-vaccination sentiment”. Two days later, Djokovic lost his appeal and was deported from Australia. Deportation usually includes a three-year ban on returning to Australia, however this can be waived. 

Australia has always been a country where being tough on border control is appealing to its population as an isolated island nation and not only that, but at the start of the COVID19 pandemic, Australia did not permit the return of its citizens. On top of this, Melbourne was the city with the strictest and world’s longest lockdown that lasted a total of 262 days. However, the reasons behind Djokovic’s deportation went beyond public health safety. Firstly, I’d like to discuss the dangerous precedent being set by Prime Minister Morrison’s government on border control. Subsequently, this case also put a spotlight on the treatment of certain migrants in Australia.

Djokovic’s approval of a medical exemption caused a lot of frustration and anger in Australia. However, whether or not the public agreed with the decision it is important to acknowledge that he was granted an exemption by a panel set up by Tennis Australia and by the State of Victoria. His visa cancellation had nothing to do with the public’s health safety, according to Mr Hawke, who stated that his presence may risk “civil unrest” as he is a “talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”. While being unvaccinated himself, Djokovic has not once promoted anti-vaccination disinformation. Therefore, this act by the immigration minister demonstrates the laws that the Australian government can use to exclude, deport or silence an individual who had previously expressed political views which they did not agree with. Djokovic is being used as a political scape-goat by Mr. Hawke and the government to suppress any form of dissent or disagreement with their measure. 

Another worry which was brought to light through this case was the living conditions at the Park Hotel. Upon Djokovic’s arrival, he immediately expressed displeasure about the food and with government’s help, he was able to receive diplomatic assistance on better food, exercise facilities and internet connection. However, he is not the only person being held there. About 30 asylum seekers are currently detained in the same hotel, with some being there for two years. I doubt that these refugees are receiving the same diplomatic assistance that Djokovic did. Refugee advocates are unsure on how many individuals are subjected to these unlawful decisions and conditions. 

The future of Novak Djokovic is uncertain; he has returned to Serbia to unwavering support, but France has recently announced that athletes must be vaccinated to perform in the country. This means that he could be barred from the next Grand Slam as well, Roland Garros. The future GOAT of tennis is far from being decided. Currently Rafael Nadal remains the only challenger in the Australian Open who can take home the elusive 21st Grand Slam.  

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