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No one should mourn Novak Djokovic’s absence from Australian Open


Novak Djokovic will not defend his Australian open title this week after losing his appeal against deportation
Novak Djokovic will not defend his Australian open title this week after losing his appeal against deportation

In an alternate reality, Novak Djokovic would be beginning his bid to win a 10th Australian Open and a men’s all-time record 21st Grand Slam tournament on Sunday night in Melbourne. 

Instead, after the tennis world No1 lost his final appeal against deportation, he was kicked out of the country on the eve of his title defence, essentially for not being vaccinated against Covid-19.

For Novak, it means that in the coming days there will be no Australian Open, no 10th crown in Rod Laver Arena, no Grand Slam record, no more court hearings. There should also be no great mourning of his absence.

It’s only fair to note that, despite the blanket coverage the Serb’s extraordinary situation has received since before he even touched down at Tullamarine Airport 11 days ago, much is still not known about exactly why it came to this.

What we do know, however, is that Djokovic submitted a visa application that contained incorrect information about his previous travel; a matter considered important in stopping the spread of Covid-19.

He has also confessed, after evidence came to light, to breaking isolation rules by carrying out an interview with a journalist in his native Serbia last month when he knew that he had tested positive for the virus, which has led to more than 5.5m deaths.   

Both leave a bad taste in the mouth and would seem justification enough, morally at least, for being refused entry to a country which has controlled its borders throughout the pandemic as tightly as Australia, to the considerable pain of its residents and economy.

And then there is the question of whether a recent Covid-19 infection should have warranted a medical exemption allowing Djokovic to enter the country and take part in the year’s first major despite being unvaccinated. 

It’s true that even the Australian government, their counterparts in the state of Victoria and organisers of the tournament appear to disagree about that. The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation seems unsure too, based on its seemingly contradictory guidance.

Other players, such as Czech women’s doubles specialist Renata Voracova, have also ultimately been denied the right to play the Australian Open despite initially being granted an exemption, too, however, so Djokovic can’t be made a special case.

As Andy Murray has pointed out, no one comes out of this episode terribly well. Not the organisers of the Australian Open, who ought to have ensured the bar for their exemptions met that of the federal government’s for immigration. Not the government, which has been accused of using Djokovic as a handy bogeyman to boost its approval ratings ahead of an election. And not the player, whose response to his visa error was to pin it on his agent.

His absence might also be good for the tournament as a spectacle, however. It blows the men’s singles draw wide open, raising the possibility of a new Grand Slam champion and some of the unpredictability enjoyed in the women’s game, where the last major final was contested by two teenagers

And it might be better for the player’s legacy. Had Djokovic played the Australian Open this month, he would in all likelihood have won that 10th title and broken the men’s Grand Slam record. But he would have done it under a cloud. 

It is surely a matter of time before he does eclipse the achievements of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. When that time comes, it will be better for all if it can be celebrated without debate about whether Djokovic should have been there in the first place. 



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