SYDNEY, Australia — What began as a power struggle between a defiantly unvaccinated tennis star and a prime minister seeking a distraction from his own pre-election missteps has turned into something far weightier: a public stand for pandemic rules and the collective good.
Novak Djokovic is currently the sinner in the moment.
Australia — a proud “sporting nation” where the year’s first tennis Grand Slam begins on Monday — hemmed and hawed about Mr. Djokovic for more than a week. Australians didn’t much like how their government had summarily canceled Mr. Djokovic’s visa at the airport. After all their lockdown obedience and vaccine drives, they were also unhappy about the celebrity athlete’s effort to glide into the country while skirting a Covid vaccination mandate.
“As Meryl Streep might say, it’s complicated,” said Peter FitzSimons, an author and former professional rugby player.
However, a series of shocking revelations almost ended any popular ambivalence. Mr. Djokovic acknowledged that he hadn’t isolated himself last month, even though he suspected and was later confirmed to have a Covid infection. And he also blamed his agent, who made a false statement on an immigrant document warning of severe penalties for any errors.
With that, Australia’s leaders decided they had seen enough. On Friday, the country’s immigration minister canceled Mr. Djokovic’s visa for a second time, putting his bid to win a record 21st Grand Slam title in grave doubt. If Mr. Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s tennis player, does not successfully challenge the decision in court, he will be detained and deported before competing.
The final count shows that a country far away from the epicenters Covid suffering, in which sport is a revered forum to right and wrong, has become an enforcer for the collectivist principles that the entire globe has been struggling with during the pandemic.
Mr. Djokovic wanted to play by his own rules. First, he admitted to having submitted an entry form at the airport which falsely claimed he had not been internationally in the 14 days preceding his arrival in Melbourne. In reality, he was actually flying between his native Serbian country and Spain during that period. (The misstatement was a “human error,” he said, made by his agent.)
And then there was everything he did during the time he believed he might have been exposed to Covid and eventually, in his telling, tested positive — the Covid diagnosis that enabled his vaccine exemption in the first place.
His chances of winning the unmatched 10th Australian Open were essentially ruined by his inept and reckless disregard for others’ health.
The story begins on Dec. 14th, when he was photographed at a Belgrade basketball game with someone who later tested positive to Covid. After his first visa was cancelled, his lawyers filed an affidavit in Australian federal court stating that he took a P.C.R. He received a positive test at 8 in the morning.
He stated that he took a rapid blood test the next day to confirm his results. He attended a Belgrade junior tennis ceremony, where photographs show him without a mask and posing near children.
Later that day (Dec. 17), Mr. Djokovic revealed that he had learned about his positive P.C.R. Test result. However, he did not enter 14 days of isolation as required by the Serbian government. On Dec. 18, he gave a media interview and took photos at his Belgrade tennis club. He later said he knew he was Covid-positive, calling it an “error of judgment” to follow through with the interview but saying he had felt “obliged” to.
The journalists involved claimed that they were never told by Mr. Djokovic that he was positive.
Although he has a history of dismissive stances against the pandemic, and sometimes petulant outbursts in court, his behavior following a positive test seems like what really set the world ablaze.
One thing was refusing to be vaccinated. But withholding the knowledge that he was infected?
“For him to do that photo shoot because he didn’t want to disappoint somebody — are you kidding me?” Martina Navratilova said on Australian morning television this week.
“I would be staying home, and you couldn’t pull me out of the house for anything.”
Many Australians saw in Mr. Djokovic’s actions both dishonesty and a disregard for others. Many wondered if he had actually tested positive, given the timing of his exemption from vaccination. They could smell his arrogance and found it unacceptable, especially at this stage in the pandemic.
The community spirit that has defined the country’s virus response — with people grinding through lockdowns and longing for family as borders slammed shut, only to then rush out for vaccines — is in an uncertain place at the moment.
Omicron is on the rise, and Australians are experiencing more deaths per day than ever since Covid. They want the wave’s end. They desire continued solidarity.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought to exploit that urge when he pounced on Mr. Djokovic’s first visa cancellation, tweeting barely an hour after it happened on Jan. 6 that “rules are rules.”
After the second visa cancellation was made public, he reiterated the point on Friday evening, four days after the procedural grounds had been restored by a judge.
“Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected,” he said.
Although the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, cited what he called a risk to public health in canceling Mr. Djokovic’s visa, doctors were less convinced that health was the issue. One athlete is not a significant threat, considering the number of Covid cases in Australia every day and the high vaccination rates among the vulnerable.
“From a medical perspective, you can say, well, what’s the problem?” said Dr. Peter Collignon, a physician and microbiology professor at the Australian National University.
The Novak Djokovic-Australia Standoff
But the “Djokovic affair” is no longer — and maybe never was — just about science.
Dr. Collignon stated, three years after the pandemic began, the question of moral judgement was raised. “When do we stop punishing people for making bad decisions?” he asked.
In Australia, the answer is “not yet.”
Now, as before, the decent man is the one who doesn’t infect anyone, as Albert Camus wrote in his 1947 novel “The Plague,” and if the prime minister hadn’t jumped on the cause, someone else probably would have. Mr. Djokovic (34), placed himself on the center stage in an arena where Australia often defines its identity as a nation.
Many Australians consider sports a part of their daily lives. There are high participation rates and watching others compete has been described as a character-building activity for generations.
Character is also what Australia’s Migration Act demands of all migrants. A “character test” sits at the center of a provision that gives the immigration minister the right to deny or cancel a visa for a wide range of reasons, though in this case, he relied on another section that lets the minister reject a visa if it’s “in the public interest.”
The law’s wide scope has often been abused. More than 20 refugees are still staying in the same hotel Mr. Djokovic stayed when he was waiting for the hearing to cancel his first visa. Some, such as Mehdi Ali (a musician who fled Iran at age 15), have been held in Australia for many years.
But for Mr. Djokovic, Australia’s tough stance on border security seems to have delivered a result that many people can support, even if it means a less interesting Australian Open.
On Friday, Mr. Djokovic was scheduled to practice at Melbourne Park after he was named the No. Fans seemed to be resigned to the loss.
“He has a way of rubbing the Australian public the wrong way,” said Damien Saunder, 44, a cartographer who is the president of a tennis club near Melbourne. “No disrespect for him or his tennis ability and that, but there’s something about him that just doesn’t quite sit with the Australian public.”
Christopher Clarey contributed reporting in Melbourne, Australia.
Source: NY Times