Sports

Novak Djokovic threw a temper tantrum for the ages


Some quality street art from Novak Djokovic’s native Serbia.

Some quality street art from Novak Djokovic’s native Serbia.
Photo: Getty Images

Novak Djokovic has effectively chosen to remain unvaccinated over his bid to break the men’s Grand Slam singles record. That may not have been his aim, but his choice nonetheless has consequences.

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Unvaccinated No. 1 seed Djokovic was deported from Australia on the eve of the Australian Open. He gave a false answer on his visa application (he said it was human error) and visited with a L’Equipe reporter and photographer, maskless, a day after he found he had tested positive on a PCR test (he said that was a mistake), but what Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government argued before a three-judge panel was that he would galvanize the anti-vaccine movement in Australia.

Australia has confirmed that the ban is for three years.

French Sports Minister Roxana Mărăcineanu , who had said athletes would likely be able to enter France if they quarantined, changed his guidance on Sunday night after the Australian court’s decision came down, the French outlet L’Equipe is reporting.

And so now the choice is simple. Does Djokovic want to consolidate his legacy on the court, win a record 21 Grand Slam titles, and take his place over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as the greatest player in a golden age of tennis? Or does he want to remain unvaccinated and tilt at windmills with Brexit architects like Nigel Farage cheering him on and his father comparing him to Jesus?

Sure, there are tennis players who complain that Australia’s immigration rules are inconvenient for them, who argue that they won’t spread the virus and have a better idea of what is reasonable. But they don’t get to write immigration policy. That is above their pay grade. You know what else is unreasonable? Taking off your shoes every time you want to get on a plane. But, unless you have TSA Precheck, you have to do it. You don’t get to hold up the line and argue that it’s been 20 years since checking shoes was relevant.

A vaccine mandate is a reasonable requirement for nations to have for visitors during a viral surge. Anyone can choose not to get vaccinated. The expectation that travel and immigration will be smooth is not a given in the best of times, and it must be annoying for those who have traveled freely in the past to meet an additional layer of scrutiny.

And now, Djokovic has forced the question for every nation whose borders he wishes to cross: Can an athlete who refuses vaccination qualify for an exemption?

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Other nations can see something else: How bad this situation was for the Australian government. Djokovic’s expulsion hinged on a reason that was more politically expedient than technical, which again opened the government to critique. That nation’s immigration policies have come under well-deserved scrutiny for the long-term detainment of people who didn’t get court dates at the snap of a finger. Djokovic’s ability to get a court date in a week is an affront to those who have waited months and years.

Djokovic has a choice to make. He can get vaccinated and travel freely on the ATP Tour, or he can turn every visa application into a standoff. If he declines vaccination, that is a perfectly valid choice, but he then doesn’t have the right to demand that tournament-hosting nations bend their laws to accommodate him. He is not a martyr. A rampant and deadly virus means the world is not as it was.

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The ability to have two international tennis tours, as well as Olympic events and international competitions, is actually a tribute to the stability the world has experienced in the post WWII era. Athletes have not had to worry about much about being stopped at the border for the most part. And globalism has meant that events from China to Australia to Africa and Europe were all manageable.

In recent months however, two incidents have revealed a fracturing of that kind of carefree movement. Peng Shuai is still not at liberty in her native China after saying she had been sexually mistreated by a top government official. Her social media post was taken down quickly and she was not seen for weeks. Several nations, including the United States and Denmark, have called a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Olympics, due to human rights violations like the detainment of the former WTA tennis star.

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In December, the WTA suspended its Asian tournaments, including a $14 million year-end tournament in Shenzhen.

“China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in the statement announcing the decision. “I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”

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Shuai is still being detained, and the International Olympic Committee has been placated by video calls through Chinese intermediaries, in which she disavowed her post, without insisting on meeting with her personally and without a government minder.

Just as sports can be a sign of a functioning society (and thanks to Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle for amplifying my quote), they can also be a sign of fissures in the systems that allow for friendly play.

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Those systems are tightening when it comes to international play. The Tokyo Olympics were delayed a year with COVID, and the Beijing Olympics will optimistically take place during a global omicron surge. China has made the political calculus, as many nations have, that it stands to gain more than lose from hosting despite the risk. But the calculus is different than it was five years ago, and it doesn’t look like there will be a return to that particular normal.

We all have to make the choice to adjust to these conditions or not, but raging at the way the world has changed and that the more comfortable way of doing things is no longer an option, is an exercise in futility. As Djokovic has just shown.

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