Opinion: The Novak Djokovic saga has turned the spotlight on deep divisions in Australian society

Had things gone according to Djokovic’s plans, he would have arrived in Australia on Wednesday night and would be at the Rod Laver Arena in the Melbourne summer sun by Friday at the latest, sorting out the flight problems and preparing to the Australian Open.

Instead, Djokovic spent Wednesday night at the Tullamarine airport. And he will spend at least the next four days at Melbourne’s Park Hotel, after apparently traveling to Australia on a visa that does not allow medical exemptions for the unvaccinated, according to comments Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made to CNN.
The 34-year-old Djokovic has not publicly disclosed his vaccination status and has repeatedly cited privacy concerns when asked. On Thursday, Morrison told a news conference that Djokovic “did not have a valid medical exemption” to the vaccination requirement for arrivals.
The billionaire tennis star is now a man in limbo, currently staying at a hotel used as an immigration detention center, and which has since been turned into a magnet for protesters of all kinds – from Djokovic supporters to refugee advocates. Djokovic fans even got a wave and a “sign of heart of his hero, from behind the hotel room window.
But according to accounts of some asylum seekers who have stayed there, the Park Hotel is a place of tiny rooms with no fresh air and the location of a coronavirus outbreak in October. It is where some occupants have waited years for their cases to be resolved.
So there is an irony in the fact that the hotel’s newest guest had his visa appeal canceled and the expedited deportation order to be heard within hours.
Djokovic moved in on Thursday and will remain there for at least four days after the hearing on his appeal of his travel visa cancellation was postponed to Monday.
Regardless of how you feel about Djokovic’s polarization, there’s no one scenario where he ever deserved it. It is unlikely that the world’s number one tennis player would have embarked on the long commercial flight to Melbourne had he not received the green light from tournament officials.

But somewhere along the way, the flow of information involving Australian Open officials, the Victorian state government and federal authorities has turned into a set of broken phones.

Prime Minister Morrison insisted that the matter stopped with authorities at the border, not with tennis organizers. “Tennis Australia said he could play and that’s fine, that’s their decision, but we make the call at the border,” he said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, along with acting state sports minister Jaala Pulford, urged Djokovic to be frank about why he was granted the exemption. It would have gotten them off the hook a bit. They swore he was not receiving special treatment, but did not elaborate.
After all, no official would want to be seen handing Djokovic a “get out of jail card.” Melbourne residents endured some of the longest and harshest lockdowns in the world over the past 18 months as the country pursued a zero Covid strategy. While those restrictions have been eased, for now, and the nation has officially turned to “live with the virus,” memories of the restrictions that saw Melbourne in particular lowered for months for its residents.
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Against the background of the Djokovic debacle, Australia’s rise of Covid-19 rumbled, with the Omicron variant posing a new threat just as states were loosening restrictions. There is a feeling of unease and panic that was not here a year ago. Queues for PCR tests or rapid tests stretch across city blocks. Pathology labs and test sites are closing due to overload. Even if the authorities and not Djokovic himself are responsible for allowing him to enter the country, the timing could not be worse.

And with state and federal elections scheduled for this year, Djokovic’s high-profile drama is an opportunity for politicians to show their tough stance on Covid-19 rule breakers.

Djokovic got a taste of how Australians treat tall poppies a year ago, the ones that stick their heads above the rest and expect special treatment. A smaller group of tennis players and support staff traveled to last year’s Australian Open and faced a two-week quarantine before being able to compete.

Any minor complaint about bad quarantined food was met with anger and derision by many locals. The players simply did not understand, according to many Melbourne residents, how privileged they were to be able to enter the country when so many loved ones could not make it home, not even to attend funerals.
In the last 24 hours, Djokovic has not helped himself. A report From a Serbian tennis journalist, Djokovic asked to stay in the large apartment that he has rented for himself and his coaches and trainers, rather than at the Park Hotel.
One imagines that the refugees detained together with him would be delighted to know that. And if there’s one thing we know about Djokovic, it’s that he’s never been particularly good at reading the room. His attorney, Nick Wood, even tried to speed up the process on Thursday, saying Tennis Australia “needed to know by Tuesday” if Djokovic would play, so that it could “find a replacement player if necessary.
But the Australian Open is not a two-man exhibition in which a missing player is a crisis. There will be over 100 players competing to qualify for a spot in the main draw next week at Melbourne Park. Finding a warm body will not be a problem.

In the end, Djokovic’s arrogance hasn’t helped. But no one, not the various levels of government, not Tennis Australia and Tiley, came out of this looking good. And if Djokovic’s lawyer makes a compelling case to the judge on Monday, and his client arrives in Melbourne Park ready to compete, Australian fans are sure to give him the “welcome” they feel he deserves.

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