Thanks, Australia, for turning Novak Djokovic into the world’s richest working-class hero

Thanks, Australia, for turning Novak Djokovic into the world’s richest working-class hero

Police clear fans of Serbian Novak Djokovic as a car leaves the offices of lawyers following his court win ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne on Jan. 10.ASANKA BRENDON RATNAYAKE/Reuters

Watching Novak Djokovic’s father welling up on Serbian TV, you felt the tide beginning to turn on Australia.

A couple of days ago, they were the aggrieved party. According to the popular narrative, Djokovic was sneaking into their country with a dodgy vaccine exemption he’d cooked up with his rich pals who run the Australian Open. He couldn’t even manage to fill out his paperwork correctly.

But then Australia made a lazy error – they shunted Djokovic into the system. Four days in a fleabag motel made him the world’s most famous refugee. Being pulled into court made him its most famous victim of overzealous prosecution.

Testimony in court, including transcripts of his interactions with border guards, made the Australian bureaucracy look Orwellian. Held incommunicado in a room in the middle of the night, all Djokovic asked for was an opportunity to call someone in the morning. At first, that was agreed to. Then it was suddenly not.

You don’t need to be pro- or anti-anything to sympathize with Djokovic’s situation. Anyone who has had even a glancing run-in with arbitrary authority – and that’s everyone – knows how this feels. And none of them like it.

For Australia’s future reference – if you’re going to bully someone and would like to get away with it, avoid the guy whose chequing account balance has eight zeroes after the number.

On Monday, Australian judge Anthony Kelly agreed that border agents had “reneged” on their agreements, and reinstated Djokovic’s visa.

“What more could this man have done?” Kelly wondered aloud. It’s a fair question. Whatever you feel about Djokovic’s vaccine politics, you cannot deny he went to Australia in good faith. He didn’t come up with the exemption idea. Someone offered it to him because they wanted his drawing power at their big event. He abided by the rules as he understood them. And once he got to Australia, a competing layer of government pulled the rug out from under him.

On the scale of injustices from small to large, it barely registers. But it’s still an injustice.

Though the judge has sided with Djokovic, Australia’s immigration minister may still revoke it on his own authority. That decision may be taken in hours or days.

Winning in court swung the PR advantage to Djokovic. As his car left his lawyers’ offices, police used tear gas to disperse the rowdy crowd gathered out front.

Has the iPhone just gotten to Australia or what? Are authorities there not aware that when you do things in public these days, someone is going to film them and put that on the internet where the rest of the world can see it? And that maybe being seen tear gassing your own citizens is not the best way to reinforce your commitment to order and good governance? It’s beginning to seem like that iconic “Bart vs. Australia” episode of The Simpsons wasn’t satire, but documentary.

And now, at the end of a long, wounding day for Australia’s international reputation, here was Djokovic’s father getting the salt ready.

Supporters of Novak Djokovic gathered with song and dance outside a Melbourne court on Monday where a judge reinstated his visa. Djokovic’s visa to enter Australia to compete in the Australian Open was cancelled after his arrival last week because he is unvaccinated.


He spoke at one of those impromptu press conferences that looks like it’s being held in a grade-school gymnasium, casting his son in terms usually reserved for dead revolutionary heroes. The use of past tense was especially clever.

“He wouldn’t allow anyone to bring him to his knees,” Srdjan Djokovic said. “But obviously the fact that he was from a small, poor country was not liked by some powerful people … they didn’t like that someone from a small country could be the best in their bourgeois sport.”

So now we have one of the richest athletes alive in the role of class warrior. Good job, everyone. Good effort.

Now all that’s left is for Australia to finish the worst example of governmental crisis management in recent memory and kick Djokovic out. That would complete his transformation from slippery rule-evader to immigration martyr.

First principles here – if Djokovic wants to go traipsing around the globe playing a game for millions of dollars, it’s not too much to expect that he obey local health guidelines. The fact that he appears to be routinely infected with coronavirus (by his own admission, twice and counting) proves that point.

But through Australia’s multi-level, multi-institution bungling of the situation, Djokovic somehow comes out of this looking like a man of principle.

That sense was reinforced by Rafael Nadal, who is as close as we’re going to get to a neutral, interested party in this mess.

“Whether or not I agree with Djokovic on some things, justice has spoken,” Nadal told Spanish radio. “(H)e has the right to participate in the Australian Open.”

Nadal’s right. Djokovic won. The only sensible solution is for Australia to acknowledge that fact and move on from it as quickly as possible. Were I a member of Australia’s ruling party, I’d be pushing for a motion in parliament to start the Australian Open tomorrow. Because Djokovic starts losing his temporary halo as soon as he’s back on the court. It’s hard to play the victim when you’re making a few hundred grand a day.

But given the way they’ve handled things to this point, we should probably expect more hilarious Australian takes on how to run a government in an honest-to-God real country, despite how much it seems like a bad reality TV show.

Maybe they can get Chris Hemsworth to dress up as Thor and fight Djokovic – the loser has to leave Australia forever? Or maybe they can trick Djokovic onto a boat and drop him in New Zealand?

The real victim in all of this is the Australian Open. Sure, they created the whole mess. But nothing that happens now in their tournament can possibly be as entertaining as everything that’s led up to it.

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