Opinion: It's Novak Djokovic's own fault he won't play the Australian Open, but getting deported makes nobody look good

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

In the final analysis from the most bizarre day in the modern history of tennis, there is one unassailable conclusion that must be recognized right at the outset: None of this happens if Novak Djokovic had simply gotten vaccinated. 

It wasn’t a lot to ask, even for somebody like Djokovic with some fringe medical beliefs and who hails from a country, Serbia, where just 46 percent of citizens are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. When it’s your job to travel the globe playing tennis in the middle of a global pandemic, navigating different rules in different countries, there was one guaranteed way for him to avoid any issues as he chased a record 21st Grand Slam title at the tournament where he’s had more success than any other in his career. 

Instead, unlike nearly all of his peers, Djokovic chose not to get vaccinated. And as a result, he’s not just out of the Australian Open, he’s going to be deported from the country after arriving late Wednesday night in Melbourne. 

Embarrassing. Ridiculous. Even by Djokovic standards for bizarre outcomes — remember, he was automatically forfeited from the U.S. Open in 2020 for slamming a ball that hit a linesperson in the throat — this one takes the cake.

And on the most fundamental level, it’s entirely his own fault.

Novak Djokovic has won a record nine Australian Open titles.

But Djokovic is far from the only culprit in this perfect storm of failure and incompetence that led to tennis once again living down to its reputation as a sport that doesn’t quite have its act together. 

You’ve got the Djokovic team not making it crystal clear to him that Australians, perhaps more than any other group of people on Earth, were going to be up in arms about an athlete of his stature getting around vaccination rules when they’ve been living under some of the most stringent COVID-19 restrictions of any country. 

You’ve got Tennis Australia and the government in the state of Victoria, which had set up the process for vaccine exemptions, clearly not being on the same page with the federal government and Australian Border Force.

And you've got a federal government in Australia, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, seeing the bubbling backlash after Djokovic received his exemption, and aggressively pouncing to score political points four months before a national election. 

“Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” Morrison tweeted. “No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant.”

Whether you think the decision is right or wrong, that’s a tweet you could stamp on campaign posters in a country with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

Fair is fair for the Australians, who in many cases have been unable to obtain permission to travel within the country to visit dying relatives. But it can also be foul when applied to this situation. The idea that Djokovic could go through a supposedly blind process to get an exemption sanctioned by the state government only to see it go up in smoke at the border is a ludicrous outcome that smacks of political face-saving.  

“There was an exemption that had been provided through the Victorian government process but clearly that did not pass the standards of proof that were required by the Australian Border Force,” Greg Hunt, the Australian health minister, told the Sunrise television show in an interview Thursday morning. “Yes it's tough, but it's fair and it's equitable and it’s one rule for all under this Australian government.”

Again, other than the absurdity of the world’s No. 1 tennis player being detained for hours at the Melbourne airport, most of this was fairly predictable if Djokovic tried to play the Australian Open while unvaccinated. It was never likely to work out well for him.

And it’s probably just a preview of what he’s going to face trying to enter other countries that host major tournaments. Just Wednesday, French president Emmanuel Macron told Le Parisien in an interview that, “I am not about pissing off the French people. But as for the non-vaccinated, I really want to piss them off. And we will continue to do this, to the end. This is the strategy.” The French Open begins in four months. 

It’s hard to know whether Djokovic’s objection to the vaccine is cultural, superstitious or iconoclastic. He’s never been willing to answer to that, but we know that a lot of his interest in holistic health and medicine began when he went to a gluten-free diet and changed the trajectory of his career. 

But even one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports must recognize that the world has changed since March of 2020. Moving around the globe has become a lot more complicated for all of us, even if we’ve been vaccinated. Without that protection, it’s going to be almost impossible, at least in the near- and medium-term. 

Does Djokovic, now age 34 and getting toward the end of his prime years, care more about his anti-vaccine stance or shattering Grand Slam records? That suddenly becomes a pretty important question for the history of tennis.

It would have been much better to see him pursue that history this month in Australia as a vaccinated player, where all the focus could have been on passing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the first time. Instead, it’s a prime opportunity for U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev to take another big step toward the No. 1 ranking or someone like Olympic gold medalist Alexander Zverev to break through for his first major. Tennis will move on regardless. 

There’s no doubt that what happened Wednesday is a mess — for Djokovic’s legacy, for the Australian Open and for tennis in general. But if he goes home with a new understanding that the world doesn't bend to his will just because he’s great at hitting tennis balls, maybe Australia will have ultimately done him a favor.