Amid the riveting spy-novel drama of Novak Djokovic’s detention at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, it was difficult to escape a sense that the vast majority of Australians were savouring every moment of his public humiliation.
Within moments of his visa being cancelled, Greg Hunt, the country’s health minister, was on morning television to confirm that the world No 1 would be on the next flight home. Almost concurrently, prime minister Scott Morrison chimed in with the triumphalist message: “Rules are rules – especially when it comes to our borders.”
As the past two years have proved, Australia loves nothing more than a border. Throughout the pandemic, even state frontiers have been welded so tightly shut that the national psyche, once proudly outward-looking, has regressed into a contented isolationism.
As such, the overwhelming reaction to shutting Djokovic out was one of the purest schadenfreude. On breakfast bulletins, anchors united around the “our country, our rules” school of thought, earnestly discussing the risk that the Serb could have posed to the Australian Open’s ball boys and girls as an unvaccinated player.
The received wisdom is that Djokovic’s stunning ejection is exclusively a public health matter, that he has failed to provide the requisite proof of his grounds for a medical exemption and that he is thus due for deportation. Except the full picture is far more complex than this. Djokovic has been undone less by a glitch in his paperwork than by the ferocious backdraft of public anger unleashed by the initial announcement that he could compete in Melbourne without being double-jabbed.
For Melburnians, this came across as a contemptuous affront to their shared sacrifice. Djokovic’s Instagram post of a picture with his bags already packed incensed those who had endured six lockdowns, who had faced huge fines if they dared even to spend more than an hour outside their homes, and who in many cases had faced vaccine mandates to return to the workplace.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Novak Djokovic (@djokernole)
From this perspective, the extension of preferential treatment to sport’s most prominent vaccine sceptic seemed, to put it politely, like a snub. Or, to put it in the words of one of his former opponents, New South Wales’ Sam Groth: “It spits in the face of every Australian.”
The outrage was universal, to the point where Mr Morrison could not resist intervening. Despite Tennis Australia insisting that the correct procedures had been followed, the prime minister highlighted how the granting of visas remained a federal prerogative, and how border force officials still had the power to turn him away. Sure enough, after eight hours’ interrogation, the once-unthinkable came to pass.
The elaborate theatre of Djokovic’s predicament stretched credulity. Whispers spread through the waiting press pack in the international arrivals hall that he was being held under “armed guard”. Footage was replayed constantly of a police vehicle intercepting his Emirates aircraft. Word filtered through from Serbia that his father was calling for insurrection on the streets. All the while, an Australian Open courtesy car waited outside for a transfer that never transpired.
It is not difficult to see how the Morrison government would rush to make political capital out of such scenes, crowing that even the world’s best tennis player was being held to the same standards as everybody else.
Mr Morrison, after all, is in the grip of a crisis. From being the land the pandemic forgot, Australia is now Covid-central, with 34,994 cases in New South Wales on Thursday and 21,997 in Victoria.
As the omicron variant rages through the population, the prime minister confronts a federal election in four months’ time that he could well lose. Against this backdrop, Djokovic’s fate, which on the surface demonstrates the equitability of Australian vaccine laws, can be weaponised to his advantage.
Mr Morrison’s message, delivered with Djokovic still at the airport, smacked of a leader already in full campaign mode.
“No one is above these rules,” he said. “Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from Covid, and we are continuing to be vigilant.”
It is astonishing that this saga was ever allowed to reach such high farce. After all, Australian immigration officials had approved his visa at the point he began his journey in Dubai. Why was it left until the final checks at Melbourne Airport, involving everybody from Mr Morrison to the president of Serbia, for this to descend into an almighty diplomatic ruckus that lasted all night?
Very few in tennis or beyond are much inclined to see Djokovic as a victim. The most prevalent view is that he only has himself to blame, that he could have saved himself the trouble by being vaccinated, just like most of his peers.
It is still possible, though, to feel a touch uncomfortable at how a nine-time Australian Open champion, a figure who in 2020 donated money to help relief efforts from the country’s devastating bushfires, is being held up to such merciless ridicule.
That unease is magnified by the posturing of Mr Morrison and his ministers, which suggests Djokovic is less the architect of his downfall than a pawn in a cynical political game.