When I first heard that Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic was detained overnight at the Melbourne airport, I experienced a kind of giddy schadenfreude. I’m a passionate fan of Djokovic’s rival, Roger Federer. In fact, my Federer fetish is so intense that I wrote a book about traveling in Roger’s footsteps in Switzerland. With Federer, Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal all sharing the record for most major singles titles (20), and my hero sidelined with a knee injury, Djokovic’s misfortune seemed almost like a blessing. But as I’ve immersed myself in the details of Djokovic’s immigration saga and watched the media, here and abroad, wage an all-out campaign for his deportation, for the first time in my life I find myself rooting for Djokovic—off the court, at least.
With the possible exception of New Zealand, no other major country has been as zealous as Australia in sealing its borders during the pandemic. So I was surprised when Djokovic, a longtime skeptic of vaccines, announced on Instagram that he had received a waiver letting him participate in the Australian Open, despite the country’s bar on unvaccinated foreigners. As a former foreign-service officer who has issued thousands of visas, I know that travelers can be turned around at borders even if they have visas and all other required documents. But I never imagined a country would issue a waiver and visa to the world’s top-ranked tennis player and then seek to deport him upon arrival.
However you feel about Djokovic’s refusal to take the vaccine, consider how the Land Down Under treated one of the world’s greatest athletes. He arrived around midnight and was detained overnight for nearly eight hours, much of that time without access to his mobile phone, before being transferred to the Park Hotel, a notoriously sketchy quarantine hotel that houses many long-term asylum seekers. He asked for more time to contact his agent and Tennis Australia, which did a remarkably poor job of advising him on visa matters, but officials didn’t grant him this basic courtesy, as if canceling his visa and deporting him were urgent priorities that couldn’t wait until the next business day.
Djokovic’s shabby treatment wasn’t the result of a rogue Australian Border Force (ABF) officer. The transcripts of his interview at the border reveal that his interlocutors took multiple, lengthy breaks between interrogation sessions, presumably to confer with superiors. Who knows how far up the chain of command the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa went, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a conservative who faces reelection this year, backed the decision, as did other high-ranking politicians and officials.
Rather than accept his deportation, Djokovic appealed the visa cancellation, and, after a weekend of raucous pro-Djokovic demonstrations outside his quarantine hotel, Judge Anthony Kelly ruled in his favor. “The point I’m somewhat agitated about is, what more could this man have done?” Kelly said. But Australia’s immigration minister Alex Hawke still has the power to re-cancel the visa and deport the Serb.
Though he may have prevailed in court, the media—here and in Australia—still want Djokovic deported. Ben Rothenberg, a woke freelance writer who covers tennis for the New York Times and has a large Twitter following, has sent dozens of tweets condemning Djokovic. “Whatever happens as this unfolds here, this is completely Novak Djokovic’s fault for not getting the vaccine in the first place, which he had ‘months’ to do,” Rothenberg tweeted.
After Kelly’s ruling, Rothenberg pivoted to questioning the authenticity of Djokovic’s December 16 positive Covid test—the basis for Australia’s approving his vaccination exemption. Then he noted that Djokovic had traveled to Spain recently, though his visa application, no doubt filled out by someone else, stated that he hadn’t traveled to any other countries in the last 14 days. Rothenberg and others in the media later noted that a mask-less Djokovic made a public appearance with children the day after his positive test. (Djokovic maintains he didn’t know about his positive test result at the time but admits he did an interview with L’Équipe with a mask on after he got his test result. Australian authorities, meantime, have reportedly expanded their probe of Djokovic to include these alleged transgressions.)
Other prominent members of the media fraternity piled on. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour called him “a poster boy for the unvaccinated” and said, “he doesn’t want to get vaccinated; he doesn’t even necessarily believe in Covid or the pandemic.” I combed through transcripts of Djokovic’s press conferences and couldn’t find any evidence that he’s ever downplayed the risks the virus poses. In fact, at the Australian Open last year, he acknowledged that the pandemic had caused “a lot of suffering” and “a lot of sacrifice” on the part of the Australian public.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who claims to be a Djokovic fan, called the court decision “morally wrong” and wrote, “Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s tennis player in the world, does not deserve to play in the Australian Open. His flouting of the country’s coronavirus vaccination regime has nothing to do with ‘freedom’—and everything to do with the persecution complex he cultivates as a source of motivation.”
Notice that no one’s making a case that Djokovic presents a threat to public health in Melbourne, which was experiencing a Covid surge well before the tennis star’s arrival. More than 90 percent of Australia’s adult population is vaccinated, and yet, just like here, heaps of fully vaccinated people are contracting and spreading the virus. The tournament’s defending champion, who jumped through every bureaucratic hoop the Australians placed in his path, doesn’t “deserve” to play in a tournament he’s won nine times before, according to Robinson, essentially because he’s a bad person who didn’t take the jab.
Every country has a right to admit or refuse whomever it wishes, as l’affaire Djokovic shows. Australians have digested heaps of panic-porn media coverage and endured some of the world’s harshest lockdowns, so I’m not surprised that many aren’t keen to welcome an unvaccinated player whom they disliked to begin with. But there’s something almost sinister about the global media ganging up on an athlete for disagreeing with their approach to medicine and health. Assuming he isn’t deported, I’ll still be rooting against Djokovic at the Australian Open, just like I always do. But I want him to be defeated on the court, not crucified by Australian politicians and the media.
Update: On Friday (Australian time) Djokovic’s visa was canceled for a second time, this time “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.” He’s due to be sent back into detention on Saturday; his lawyers are appealing the decision. It’s unclear if the court proceedings will conclude in time for him to play in the tournament, which begins Monday.
Dave Seminara is a writer and former diplomat. He is the author of Footsteps of Federer: A Fan’s Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts.
Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images