I’m an unlikely advocate for Novak Djokovic. I wrote a book detailing my love for the Serb’s great rival, Roger Federer, and I nearly always root for Djokovic’s opponents on the tennis court. But when I attend the Miami Open, which starts Sunday, with my son, I want to see the world’s Number One player perform in person. We probably won’t have that opportunity because the Biden administration is stubbornly clinging to an executive order— set to expire on May 11—that prohibits unvaccinated foreign nationals from entering the country by air. There seems to be only one hope so far: that Djokovic accepts a novel offer from Florida governor Ron DeSantis to enter the country by boat, taking advantage of an apparent loophole in the regulations governing entry to the U.S.
Djokovic sought exemptions from the U.S. travel ban on the unvaccinated to play in two important tournaments in March—the Miami Open and another event in Indian Wells, California. (He missed both last year, along with the U.S. Open, due to his vaccination status.) To no one’s surprise, California governor Gavin Newsom made no effort to intervene on the Serb’s behalf, but Djokovic found an ally in Florida’s governor, who sent President Biden a two-page letter asking Biden to grant an exemption. I asked DeSantis at a press conference on March 7 about his efforts to bring the unvaccinated tennis star to Florida. “He poses zero risk to the United States, zero risk to Florida, zero risk to Miami, so he should be allowed to compete,” the governor said.
DeSantis said he’d “run a boat from the Bahamas” to bring Djokovic to Florida but indicated that Djokovic’s camp wasn’t sure he wanted to enter the country in such unorthodox fashion. “I think it would be a great moment,” DeSantis added. And indeed, it would be. Even I would love to see tennis’s ultimate bad boy, clad in his Lacoste sweatsuit, tennis bag at the ready, speeding north in a boat, like Sunny and Crockett used to do in the Miami Vice intro. But Djokovic had an exemption and assurances from regional authorities in hand when he turned up in Australia last year; he was deported anyway, so one can understand his hesitance to enter another country under dubious circumstances.
At least one ferry company in the Bahamas advertises that no vaccinations or tests are required for passengers arriving by boat, so DeSantis’s offer might just be more courtesy than necessity. It’s also unclear if Djokovic’s visa status—as an athlete competing in an event, he would likely arrive with a P1A visa—complicates his potential arrival by boat in a way that it wouldn’t for an ordinary visitor taking a ferry from the Bahamas. DeSantis says that he’s asked the Biden administration for clarification on whether Djokovic can legally arrive by boat, but it’s anyone’s guess if the administration will respond before the tournament begins on March 19.
In any case, DeSantis said that Djokovic is being “discriminated against because he didn’t take the MRNA Covid jab.” It sure feels that way. Biden has already declared the pandemic over and hasn’t articulated any coherent rationale for maintaining the ban until May 11. He’s never been asked to explain why unvaccinated asylum seekers are welcome, while world-famous tennis athletes and others arriving by air are not. Last summer, Fox News’s Peter Doocy asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about the hypocrisy of letting unvaccinated migrants in but not Djokovic. Jean-Pierre lamely referred him to the CDC, while cluelessly claiming that migrants don’t just walk across the border.
Jean-Pierre was asked about DeSantis’s comments on Djokovic again on March 8. Again, she deflected to the CDC, while also bizarrely referring the reporter to the BNP Open tournament in California, as if that venue were responsible for America’s public-health and immigration policies. “As for what goes on specifically with the BNP Open, those are—those are questions for them,” she said. “It is a private entity, and so we will let them speak to that.”
DeSantis neatly illustrated the larger point of the affair, which has nothing to do with sports. “Congress never passed any of this (vaccine requirements). This was all done by executive fiat by the Biden Administration,” he said. “That’s not how this country is supposed to be governed. . . . How unscientific is it to impose this ridiculous mandate? We thrive off of foreign visitors and tourists, and there are people as a matter of principle who don’t want to show their shot records either way.”
The Biden administration recently rolled out an app that allows would-be asylum seekers to schedule their unauthorized arrivals. The administration could have made Covid-19 vaccination, or at least testing, a precondition for making an appointment, but declined to do so. Djokovic has already missed too many tournaments because of his vaccination status, including last summer’s U.S. Open. He turns 36 in May, and it’s unclear how much longer he’ll play. If he rides into Miami on a boat, illustrating the folly of Biden’s crusade against the unvaccinated, even I might have to root for him, just this once.
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