Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player, traveled all day Wednesday from Dubai to Australia, a journey that was supposed to begin his defense of the Australian Open singles championship.
On Thursday, he was told he would need to leave the country, following a 10-hour standoff with government officials at a Melbourne airport, where he was held in a room overnight over the validity of his visa and questions about the evidence supporting a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine. The exemption was supposed to allow Djokovic, a 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion and one of the biggest stars in sports, to compete in the Australian Open even though he has not been vaccinated.
Djokovic did not immediately leave the country, and his team filed a legal challenge to the ruling on Thursday. A judge said Djokovic would be allowed to remain in Australia at least until Monday as his lawyers awaited a hearing. A spokesman for the tennis star did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The chain of events represented a startling turnabout for Djokovic, who in a little more than 24 hours went from receiving special, last-minute permission to play in the Open, to boarding an intercontinental flight, to essentially being told by the prime minister of Australia that he was not welcome in the country.
At one point President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia even got involved, speaking with Djokovic and criticizing the Australian government for its treatment of his country’s biggest sports star.
The pandemic has wreaked all manner of havoc with sports during the past two years. The Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed for a year. Major events took place in empty stadiums. Star players have been sent into isolation just ahead of their competitions after testing positive for the virus.
The situation involving Djokovic, one of the most polarizing figures in tennis, was a match for any of them. It turned on a confrontation between a sports superstar and the most powerful leader in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, where government officials, citizens, the media and even some fellow players criticized the exemption, seemingly prompting the sudden shift.
The decision promises to become another flashpoint in the debate about vaccines and how the pandemic should be managed now, especially in Australia, where egalitarianism is considered a sacred principle — and where “the tennis,” as the Open is called, is also beloved by what often seems like an entire nation of sports fanatics.
In a statement Thursday, the Australian Border Force pledged to “continue to ensure that those who arrive at our border comply with our laws and entry requirements. The ABF can confirm that Mr. Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently canceled.”
For Djokovic, it was the latest and arguably the most wrenching controversy in a career that has been filled with them, nearly all of which have been brought on by the behavior of a champion who can be as willful and unbending off the court as he is on it.