Sports

Let me breakdown this Novak Djokovic-Australian Open mess

Novak, this is what you get.

Novak, this is what you get.
Image: Getty Images

Let’s just begin by talking about Novak Djokovic’s skills. He is very, very good at hitting fuzzy, yellow, bouncy tennis balls. He can hit them very hard, and yet he can also hit them very softly. He makes people clap with delight with how he hits tennis balls. He wins very large trophies. Hitting fuzzy, yellow, bouncy balls so well has made him a very rich man.

Well done, Novak!

Unfortunately, being really good at tennis doesn’t spur your immune system to produce the antibodies that fight off the coronavirus. Getting the vaccine does. (So does getting COVID, which is something that Djokovic has done at least twice, maybe, but more on that later.)Many nations have put rules in place to make sure that the people who come into their cities and hotels and restaurants are not going to spread the virus. Australian officials stopped Djokovic at immigration when he arrived to play this year’s Australian Open, and determined his medical exemption wasn’t valid.

Which is where our story picks up.

Djokovic has a hearing Monday to determine whether the nine-time Australian Open champion (a record) can stay in Australia and play, and keep in mind that Australia has had some of the strictest COVID rules any democratic-led government has imposed on its citizens.

Djokovic’s lawyers say the medical exemption he requested to enter is based on a positive PCR test for the coronavirus on Dec. 16, according to reporting by the BBC. And if this is the case, as tennis writer Ben Rothenberg points out on his twitter page, there are some huge red flags. The first is that the deadline to apply for an exemption was Dec. 10. The second is that on Dec. 16, multiple social media posts have Djokovic posing with kids indoors and maskless at an event. On the 17th, Djokovic tweeted photos of himself receiving his own stamp from his home country of Serbia at an in-person ceremony.

As Djokovic has not been vaccinated, according to the facts in his case for admission, the only way to claim a medical exemption was to get COVID within six months of entry. So as he was planning to play the tournament, which starts on Jan. 17, how did he think he would qualify for entry?

He just happened to test positive, and could apply for the exemption, but didn’t isolate or take any other steps to prevent spreading it?

None of it makes sense.

There are a whole lot of questions about the exemption he applied for, and may or may not be due. About whether the people who told him they’d let him play in the tournament are the same people who determine which travelers can enter the country. Djokovic’s lawyers say that he received permission to enter the country from an immigration official, and if that’s the case, the hearing will determine that determination was based on factual information.

And in a wild twist, you can actually watch the hearing through this public link.

The ATP’s top-ranked player was also host to a three-site super spreader tournament in the Balkans when the pandemic first began. So here is a player on planes and in hotels, greeting people maskless and indoors and admits to twice getting covid. Should Australia let him in? This is a nation that has been extremely conservative about conditions for spread, and there are plenty of Australians who have followed the rules, are exhausted from lockdowns, and are looking at this and thinking maybe they should have taken tennis lessons more seriously.

Can’t just walk up to the border with a PCR positive test and explain that you get COVID all the time, so it’s all good?

Why on earth would Australia let in a reckless, twice-infected, antivaxxer who is clearly not interested in following rules, and quite possibly played fast-and-loose with the exemption protocols so that he could hit a yellow ball with a racket?

And now, terrific, Djokovic has whipped up the international liberty-for-all crowd. British ghoul Nigel Farage has tweeted:

“I am talking with the Djokovic family and they are clear that Tennis Australia, in line with Victoria state law, allowed Novak to come to Australia as he had proof of a positive PCR test within the last 6 months. He was then arrested, his phone and wallet taken.”

Right, because Djokovic is choosing to stay and argue his case in front of a judge, so he has a room at the airport. Nations have laws, and when you enter sovereign countries, you have to agree to follow their rules. You’d think a leader of the Brexit movement would get the whole sovereign nation thing. Many on social media welcomed Farage to the campaign for migrant rights, but of course this only applies to one celebrity, and not to the thousands of people fleeing oppression and poverty looking to enter the United Kingdom or the United States each year. Wait until he hears about conditions at the southern border.

But I digress.

The bottom line is that Djokovic isn’t really all that different from anyone else. He has chosen not to get vaccinated. Plenty of people have done that, and some of those have actual medical reasons that they can’t. The choice not to get vaccinated has consequences. You might not be able to work in certain environments as an unvaccinated person, or enter certain restaurants, or travel freely between borders.

No one is doing this to Djokovic. We are in a pandemic, and the ways we adjust to that are often uncomfortable. Look at the debate around schools, no one would choose to keep kids home under normal conditions, but in a pandemic there are very difficult considerations at play.

But no one person gets to decide what is reasonable for them is also reasonable for all the people with whom they interact, especially at a nation’s borders. So Djokovic’s has to decide between vaccination and his quest to become the greatest champion of his era against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, or hope his name, stature and timely PCR positives allow him entry to Grand Slam nations.

Or as Nadal put it: “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”



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