A match like no other: U of T's Simon Darnell on Novak Djokovic vs. Australia

Novak Djokovic attends a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Jan. 14 (photo by MARTIN KEEP/AFP via Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic, the world number one in men’s tennis, was supposed to be defending his champion title at the Australian Open this year. Instead, he ended up defending his right to stay in the country after getting embroiled in an unprecedented legal battle with the government of Australia.

It all started on Instagram, where the tennis star announced that he had gotten a medical exemption (from getting a coronavirus vaccine) to participate in the Grand Slam tournament. He applied for the exemption based on his having tested positive for COVID-19 in December. Two medical panels affiliated with Tennis Australia and the state of Victoria approved it and he was issued a visa by the Australian federal authorities. 

Simon Darnell (photo by Arnold Lan)

The news of his exemption, however, was met by a public outcry from Australians, who have had to endure some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the world. When Djokovic landed in Melbourne, his visa was cancelled after an hours-long interview with the border agents, who informed him that he did not meet the requirements for a medical exemption. Faced with a deportation order, Djokovic decided to stay in Melbourne to fight his case. He was taken to a notorious detention hotel for asylum seekers to await a court hearing four days later. The judge ruled that border officials ignored correct procedure when Djokovic landed in Melbourne and his visa cancellation was overruled. 

But his troubles did not end there, with news reports surfacing of him breaking isolation and inconsistencies on his visa application. Djokovic took to Instagram again to explain the first as an error in judgement and the second as a simple mistake. Yet, the damage was done and whatever sympathy the star may have received while in detention soon gave way to renewed resentment. 

Then, on Jan. 14, Australia’s minister of immigration announced he was cancelling Djokovic’s visa again on the basis that his presence in Australia could stir up anti-vaccine sentiment. Djokovic’s lawyers called the decision “patently irrational” and appealed, but this time a panel of judges ruled to uphold the visa cancellation “on the basis of the legality of the minister's decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make.” Djokovic was on a plane leaving Australia the following day, but questions about the case, how it was handled and the repercussions it may have – in sport and beyond – continue. 

Simon Darnell, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, is director of the faculty’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies with a special interest in sport and public policy, social movements and activism in sport, and celebrity and consumer culture in sport. He recently chatted with KPE’s Jelena Damjanovic about Djokovic’s match up with the Australian authorities.

Was this a fight about health policy or something else entirely?

I think the Djokovic case reminds us, once again, that sports and Politics – with a big “P” in this case – are often in conversation with each other. There have been political implications at stake for the Australian state throughout this case, particularly as they faced the need to maintain consistent policies around COVID and their “strong border” narrative. And there are political implications for Serbia, a nation-state with a much smaller international profile that leverages one of their own being the world number one and such a recognizable star. So, this case shows us, again, that sports aren’t just a microcosm of politics as much as a place or a site at which politics are played out – in this case on an international scale. 

Was Djokovic unfairly singled out, as some of his supporters claim?

None of us are inside Djokovic’s head, but I do wonder if he thought that his global celebrity, his unprecedented success at the Australian Open, his number one ranking and his chase for the lead in career Grand Slams was going to somehow make it easier to circumvent the rules around vaccination and COVID protocols. I understand that he obtained an exemption, but it also seems that he thought the rules would be bent in his favour, at least to some degree. At the same time, there seems to be a sense among his supporters that he was singled out for unfair treatment, and he may well have been. Perhaps another player – someone lower ranked or less well known – might have been treated more easily (or even ignored) by the Australian government. But Djokovic was too famous to disregard. It seems, then, that his celebrity and notoriety might have actually worked against him. The Australian government had to make an example of him precisely because he is so famous.

What’s at stake for Djokovic and his career?

I don’t think we should lose sight of how much was (and is) on the line for Djokovic in terms of sport and his athletic career and legacy. Of the Grand Slam tournaments, this is the one where he has performed the best, and with his chase for the career lead in major wins so tight, a lot was riding on this appearance. Not to mention that being deported often comes with a three-year ban, which would put a real dent in his ability to win more major tournaments if he can’t come back to Melbourne the next two years. Overall, the importance of this tournament must have factored into his decisions to seek a medical exemption and take the risk, however he saw it, to travel to Australia at all. 

What does this affair say about tennis more broadly?

Another fascinating aspect of this is that it revealed real cracks in the relationship between tennis players and the ATP, the Association of Tennis Professionals. In most other high-profile professional sports, the players’ unions or associations go to bat for their members and fully support their rights – to play, to earn money, to be protected from injury, etc. The ATP was notably quiet about this case, until finally coming out with a statement. I think that lack of action by the ATP may further motivate those, like Canadian Vasek Pospisil, who are calling for a more player-friendly and player-led professional tennis players’ association. If Djokovic had been part of a stronger union (he and Pospisil are co-founders of the breakaway Professional Tennis Players Association), I’m not sure that he would have won his case, but it likely would have helped – and at least would have helped to create a sense that he had some support from his sport and his fellow players, instead of having to go it alone.

Was this a test case of sorts for anti-vax groups?

I should say here that I’m not really sympathetic to the anti-vax movement in any way. But it’s fascinating to see the world of sports being connected to the anti-vax sentiment or movement, and Djokovic being held up (at least by some) as an example of the ways in which people’s “freedom” to reject the vaccine is being impinged by the state. These are political issues that are becoming more significant and more divisive on a nearly daily basis, including in Canada – and once again the world of sport is one of the places in which those politics are playing out.  


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