It’s… Complicated

With the arrival of many players in Melbourne last week in the run-up to the first Major of the year, it was an absence that was most notable.

Videos circulated online of Novak Djokovic, training on hard courts and hitting with Australian Open approved balls but from what appeared to be a tennis club over in Mallorca in Spain.

Prior to this, questions upon more questions rotated around his plans, stirred-up by Djokovic’s tight-lips, his decision to remain steadfast silent in the face of the many who pushed him for clarity.

He would not be able to play the Australian Open – an event he has won a record nine times – without being vaccinated, a rule that local health authorities and the government were implementing together. 

So was Djokovic vaccinated or wasn’t he?

***

To say Djokovic has a chequered past when it comes to the topic of Covid-19 would be an understatement. 

His charity tournament way back in the summer months of 2020 is still talked about today for all the wrong reasons, an outbreak of the virus at the event where spectators were allowed to mix with players freely now infamous in its memorable absurdity.

Accusations of having opinions typically associated with those deemed as anti-vaccine, Djokovic struggled to shift the label last year amidst quotes of his that only stressed that he was against mandatory vaccination.

Perhaps then, he was tempting fate with his words, as his favourite major tournament announced that it would be the first of its kind to implement exactly that.

So would he or wouldn’t he?

***

The end of the 2021 season swung around and still Djokovic’s we’ll-wait-and-see response held firm, closing out all further questions as tennis entered its end-of-year downtime.

Throughout the next few weeks, happenings did happen however.

WTA player Nata Vikhlyantseva of Russia announced that she’d be missing the first 2022 Major, not for want of desire to compete but because her Sputnik vaccine has not as yet been deemed acceptable by Australian health officials.

French ATP doubles specialist Pierre-Hughes Herbert released a statement saying he’d be skipping the Australian Major due to his personal decision to remain unvaccinated.

ATP rising star Aman Dahiya of India had to withdraw from the junior event because of his inability to get the vaccine in his native country yet due to his age.

There were others as well, all of them falling back from participation for an array of reasons, all of them coming together to suggest that there was absolutely no way through the approved vaccine mandate.

Either you got the one they wanted you to get and played or you didn’t and you didn’t.

So would Djokovic or wouldn’t Djokovic?

***

Seeds were planted just a few short weeks ago, quickly sprouting and blossoming into something much more, leaves and flowers that read “medical exemption?!” cropping up as journalists questioned health officials.

So seemingly there was a way through all of this after-all, a medical exemption that was entitled to players that fit a specific criteria.

However, surely Djokovic would not go this route to avoid vaccination whilst accepting participation? There was laughter at the thought of one of the fittest athletes in the world successfully getting an exemption, a perhaps unfair reaction given the numerous almost-infinite array of conditions a healthy human can have. 

But it was also somewhat understandable as well given the aforementioned shut-outs and stone-walls.

Even the local Victorian government seemed to scoff at the suggestion, implying it was exceedingly unlikely that any player who is unvaccinated would be allowed to enter Australia, let alone the tournament in question.

…and yet…

***

Earlier yesterday morning, Novak Djokovic confirmed that he was flying to Australia to participate in the tournament having received a medical exemption. He did not expand further.

The instant reaction online was of course one of well-reasoned and grounded discourse and debate… Indeed, Djokovic’s fans could be seen celebrating in the showers of an outpouring of annoyance and frustration from more general tennis watchers, differences of opinion on a tennis related subject never starker than this.

It’s important to stress here that Djokovic’s exemption did have to be approved by independent panels anonymously and so claims of immediate bias or tailored systems should have probably been taken with at least a few pinches of let’s-just-wait-a-moment salt.

But there was a larger picture to take in here as well and the result of doing so should have meant eyes of judgment turning steadily upon the Australian government. If a player such as Vikhlyantseva can’t compete when legitimately vaccinated, should exemptions even have been considered for those that weren’t?

These were the kind of queries that many thought would take us all loudly into the opening week of the Australian Open 2022…

*** 

Of course, no good story is complete without one final plot twist to properly rattle minds.

Having seemingly been flying above the criticism of his medical exemption directly towards Melbourne Park, Djokovic’s chances of winning a record 21st men’s Major title were wrestled and torn to the tarmac Down Under.

On his touchdown in Australia earlier today, Djokovic was blocked from entering the country at border control, his pathway barred by a giant neon sign that read “WRONG VISA, PAL!” in scarily big font.

With his flight arriving in the early hours and no staff on hand to help him, Djokovic was stranded in the airport and questioned by security patrol, handcuffed there only by a handful of seemingly bizarre issues that meant that his medical exemption didn’t match properly with his visa paperwork.

One thing after another for the world number 1, much of it blockades that could likely have been avoided with a fraction of forethought from a selection of different people.

As the sun rose on the predicament, the utterly obscure became somewhat clearer and the unbelievable become very much possible as Djokovic looked to somehow overcome this unexpected monument of an obstacle that represented what was in all reality his biggest challenge between him and lifting the trophy he’d flown there to win.

But as the clock ticked on and the morning slowly took its leave, it was officially confirmed that Novak Djokovic’s visa was cancelled. He would be expected to depart on a flight home to Serbia directly.

***

This soap-opera-like story is clearly not yet over and tangible clarity of the whole situation may as well be non-existent, floating out of reach of any and all that are looking for it.

There have been mentions of appeals, Djokovic’s father calling for protests, the Serbian Prime Minister throwing his weight behind his countryman, all of this and then some, a swirling mass of statements clashing together to represent frustration in the face of a system many have dubbed corrupt, unfair or – at the very least – confusing.

Through it all, one thing is apparent: Djokovic’s ability to collect headlines like trading cards is as strong as it’s ever been. The man incites emotions of a very mixed variety with his words off the court even as he wins titles on it.

With that said, his chances of winning a 21st major title at the 2022 edition of the Australian Open appear to be hanging from a thread so thin that any mere push may send it breaking into oblivion.

***

However this plays out, the Happy Slam will begin in a few short weeks, with or without the presence of Novak Djokovic. And yet, it’ll be hard to shift the memories of this moment of significance and you feel that the immensity of questions that surround it will hang high in the skies above Melbourne long after the closing fireworks fade.

Happier Times: Djokovic with his most treasured of trophies at the 2022 edition of the Australian Open.

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