It is 12 days (as of Sunday) since Novak Djokovic announced he would be flying to Australia, having been granted a medical exemption against the vaccine mandate required for all players who want to play the Australian Open. In that time, public opinion in Australia has veered between outrage that he should be given an exemption at all to dismay and embarrassment at the way their government has handled the entire thing, throwing Djokovic into a detention hotel and rescinding his visa for a second time.
Djokovic’s behaviour in the days after his positive Covid-19 test – especially the following day, when he fulfilled a magazine interview commitment without telling anyone there that he was positive – was widely criticised and drew an apology from the world No 1. Many feel he should not be there, but at the same time don’t like what’s happened to him.
What of Djokovic’s fellow players? For a man who, in 2020, co-founded a new players’ union (the Professional Tennis Players’ Association), designed to serve the interests of all players, it will not be lost on the Serb that support for him among his peers has been relatively unenthusiastic. Though some have sympathised with his plight, many believe he should have done what they did, get vaccinated, the only certain way to ensure entry to the country.
Part of that might be down to the complicated nature of what has happened to Djokovic since he arrived in Melbourne late on 5 January, believing he had a valid medical exemption, which was issued by the state of Victoria and approved by Tennis Australia, due to him testing positive for Covid on 16 December. However, since a previous infection is not a valid reason for overseas travellers to enter Australia, federal officials revoked his visa.
The saga has dragged on to the point where Djokovic, having won an initial appeal, awaits a further appeal on Sunday to see if he can defend his title. Tournament victory, as unlikely as that looks right now, would give Djokovic a record 21st grand slam title. There is a lot on the line.
The ATP revealed last week that 97 of the men’s top 100 have been vaccinated. Many, such as Stefanos Tsitsipas, were reluctant to get the jab at first, but did so because they knew that was what was required to continue playing on the tour. Rafael Nadal said in November that not getting vaccinated is “a bit selfish”. Djokovic chose not to.
Andy Murray, a strong vaccine advocate, said he would not “kick Novak when he’s down”, adding that the whole thing was “not a good situation for anyone”. But the Australian Alex de Minaur, the world No 42, hinted at the resentment many people feel in Melbourne, which endured the longest lockdown of any city in the world.
“Australians have gone through a lot,” he said. “There’s no secret about that. They’ve had it very tough. They’ve done a lot of work to protect themselves and their borders. When you’re coming in, as well as every other tennis player, if you wanted to come into the country, you had to be double vaccinated. It was up to him, his choices, his judgment.”
Support has come from the most unlikely of sources, in the form of Nick Kyrgios, hardly his biggest fan. De Minaur’s compatriot, who said he was vaccinated “for others and my mother’s health”, is highly critical of how Australia has treated Djokovic. “It’s just a shit-show,” Kyrgios told the No Boundaries Podcast. “It’s not even about the vaccination any more. I feel so sorry for him.
“How we’re dealing with stuff is just so embarrassing. I just think if Australia had dealt with Covid better, I don’t think this would be such a big issue. It’s insane now.”
Kyrgios said Djokovic had contacted him to thank him for his support. “Imagine how he’s feeling,” the Australian said. “He probably wants a little bit of support from other players. He’s getting it from me. I’m not the one he expected to go out in the media and have his back.
“He’s feeling alienated and as a human that is a dangerous place to be. On a human level, he needs some support from other players.”
Many remain annoyed, though. The Portuguese player João Sousa said: “I respect that he fights for what he believes and I can be empathetic with what he is going through in Australia, but it’s a bit selfish from him to arrive here as the only player unvaccinated. It’s tough for us players to accept that.”
The Australian Sam Stosur, a former US Open champion who will be playing her final singles match at the Australian Open, said no one has come out of this situation looking good. “It’s all been a little bit messy, that’s probably an understatement,” she said. “It’s a really unfortunate situation that it’s come to at this point in time.
“Hopefully over the weekend a decision can be made finally, whether you agree or don’t agree, he stays, he goes. Whatever the case, it’s just got to be decided and hopefully it’s not going to tarnish the rest of the Australian Open.
“It’s a huge story around the world. We want the Aussie Open to be for good things, not unfortunately what the Novak situation has become.”
Rafael Nadal, who will be among the favourites whether or not Djokovic plays, said: “From my point of view, there is a lot of questions that need to be answered. In some ways I think it will be good if everything is clarified soon. Everyone chooses his road. I wish him all the best. I really respect him, even if I do not agree with a lot of things that he did the last couple of weeks.”