Just minutes from the heart of Victoria’s capital, Melbourne Park is one of the great tennis complexes. For a fortnight in January, it will be the centre of the tennis world as the home of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open.
For Melburnians the Open is more than just a tennis tournament. The grounds throb with life and with the relaxed summer holiday vibe that comes between Christmas and Australia Day on 26 January; night matches pause as celebratory fireworks light the skies over the city.
This year will be no different, except for one thing. To enter Melbourne Park, patrons, staff, media and almost all players will have to be double-vaccinated against Covid-19. Furthermore, they must show physical proof of their vaccination status, which for Australians is a government-issued certificate downloaded on to their mobile phones.
The message from the organisers, and from the state government of Victoria, is blunt: no certificate, no entry.
These regulations come after Victoria, and especially Melbourne, has endured one of the harshest Covid regimes in the world under the state’s premier Daniel Andrews. What we have contended with for nearly two years, in the name of a now discredited ‘Covid zero’ strategy, includes almost 300 days of lockdown since March 2020. There have been police-enforced curfews, residents have been prohibited from travelling more than five kilometres from their home, and playgrounds have been shut to stop parents gathering to do that most dangerous and deadly act: have a coffee and chat while their children play.
This context explains why Australians are so disgusted by Novak Djokovic’s unspecified ‘medical exemption’ to play in the Australian Open. It makes it clear why so many Aussies approve of the decision to revoke his entry visa – because the world number one allegedly could not, or would not, show that he had a valid medical reason to be exempted from Australia’s border rules. Those rules, in place for months, are no different from Melbourne Park’s: no proof of double vaccination with an approved vaccine? No entry.
This mess may reflect poorly on the competence of Australia’s immigration authorities. If Djokovic’s entry was in doubt because he hadn’t proved his vaccination status, why was he allowed to board a flight from Dubai in the first place? But apart from an anti-vaxxer fringe who have embraced Djokovic as an anti-hero suffering for the cause, the Australian public are livid with Djokovic and his special exemption at a time when many Australians are still being forcibly kept apart from their loved ones. In the name of stopping Covid’s spread, the Australian diaspora is still largely trapped overseas, and Australians are simply done putting up with the loss of their basic liberties.
Djokovic’s apparent reluctance to be vaccinated against Covid is well known here. Knowing he would want to play in Melbourne in his quest for a record 21st Grand Slam title, a guessing game has been played in the Australian media for months: will Novak come, and will he get double-jabbed? This week we got our answer.
Djokovic hasn’t helped his own dubious cause. His tin-eared, almost messianic, social media announcement about his medical exemption and imminent arrival in Melbourne was not just a failure to read the public mood. It was essentially a giant two fingers to the entire Australian population. We are still labouring here under restrictions our political leaders boast keep us safe from Covid, while being told that the lightning spread of the Omicron variant means that some restored freedoms may soon be taken away again. This is despite Australia having a national double-vaccination rate of over 90 per cent, which is approaching 95 per cent in Victoria.
Prime minister Scott Morrison, facing a federal election within months that the opinion polls say he likely will lose, has been attacked by some for being opportunistically populist in insisting that, if need be, the world’s top tennis player ‘will be on the next plane home’. But if it is true that Djokovic has not provided the necessary proof of vaccination, or documented medical exemption, it would have made a complete mockery of every sacrifice demanded of Australians in this pandemic. Morrison acted clumsily, but correctly.
Djokovic is contesting the Morrison government’s decision to revoke his visa. He has won a stay until Monday to challenge the decision in the courts. In the meantime, he’s being held in a requisitioned hotel used for Covid quarantine and detained asylum-seekers.
But even in the unlikely event he wins that legal set in a tiebreak, he should come clean to Australia about his vaccination or relevant medical status. The unpleasant feeling that Djokovic takes us for mugs is, to many, the most insufferable part of this sorry episode.
If only Djokovic listened to the wisdom of his arch-rival, Nadal, who said of this fiasco, ‘The only...clear thing is if you are vaccinated, you can play the Australian Open and everywhere, and the world, in my opinion, has been suffering enough to not follow the rules.’
The joke is now on Novak Djokovic. Had he been fully vaccinated like Nadal, there would be no outrage about him entering Australia and he would have had a great shot of winning the 2022 Australian Open title and breaking that Grand Slam record. He would have been able to enter Melbourne Park on the same terms as the rest of we lesser mortals. Djokovic only has himself to blame for this sorry saga.