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What on Earth Is Happening With Novak Djokovic?

The world No. 1 got a COVID-19 vaccination exemption for the Australian Open on grounds that are still unclear. And now, after a 12-hour standoff at the Melbourne airport, he has been told to leave the country.

Novak Djokovic, who won the last three mens singles titles at the Australian Open, was granted an exemption from Australias vaccine mandate Tuesday. The news prompted outrage from Australians and even members of the countrys government. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, "There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all." But after Djokovic arrived at Tullamarine Airport, his visa was denied and he was forced to leave the country. It is still unclear whether he will eventually be able to enter Australia and compete in the Open. Earlier today, two of Sports Illustratedtennis writers chatted about Djokovics propensity for scoring own goals and what might happen next.

Jon Wertheim: We should probably timestamp this before we do anything else. O.K. Yeah, so little after noon, Eastern time. And it seems as though as we speak, Djokovic has surrendered his phone and is being interrogated at the airport.

Chris Almeida: Great. I think everything’s going totally according to plan.

JW: There are 100 directions to go with this, but just big picture if you’re Novak Djokovic: You're trying to make tennis history. This is Tiger Woods on the threshold of eclipsing Jack Nicklaus. You’re going to play in a tournament where you’re a nine-time champion. You're the defending champion. And before you land, the host countrys prime minister is disparaging you and threatening to turn your plane around.

If you’re Djokovic, you're coming off a year in which you came within one match of winning the Grand Slam. Now you come to this event. You enrage an entire country. If you lose, you will have gone through all this for nothing. And if you win the tournament for a 10th time and make history, which should be one of these great sports moments, its going to be completely ruined now because of the circumstances.

CA: Yeah, the ability to self sabotage with this guy is really something. I dont think Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers and others who have made similar ruckuses don’t want to be liked. I think thats actually quite important to them. But with Djokovic, its very clear that being liked is the most important thing on his mind. And it says something about who his team is, that hes not able to see that this would play so, so poorly. And he did this all when things were actually going his way, right?

JW: Yeah, remember the cheers and tears?

Djokovic cried courtside after coming one win short of the calendar-year grand slam.

Djokovic cried courtside after coming one win short of the calendar-year grand slam.

CA: Everything that happened with him over the first year and a half of the pandemic was not the best. But by the end of 2021, the worst of the heat was off his tail. We even wrote an ambivalent piece about him that noted how important he's been to the game, how important his year was competitively and how he's not just a selfish moron ... and thats immediately back in the trash if you win this tournament in this way. The great year is not the thing that people are going to be thinking about after he wins the tournament. Theyre going to be thinking about why were you let into the country on potentially fraudulent grounds? And is that really what you want to have hanging over your record-breaking win?

JW: The idea, its just baffling. I mean, even look at his social media post about getting the exemption, right? If this had been Aaron Rodgers, his response would have been an antagonistic, the woke crowd can go perform sex acts on themselves. Djokovic posted you know, what an amazing planet we live on. And after quality time at home, I'm going to Australia … and you want to say: Is there nobody in your orbit to tap you on the shoulder and say, yeah, maybe you want to rethink the strategy here? This is probably is not going to go over great, especially in a country that has gone through some brutal protocols over the last few years, especially in the country where there are nationals being denied reentrance because they dont meet criteria in a country thats 93% vaccinated. I also think something thats gone overlooked is: How do his colleagues feel? How do the racquet stringers and the ATP employees and the people that work at the players restaurant feel? It's just so wildly ignorant.

This is somebody who wants your affection, whos trying to essentially form a players union in tennis. He wants a leadership position. He is very conscious of his popularity levels, with respect to his rivals. And still, its just its own goal after own goal.

CA: And related to that, it would be possible for him to wear the black hat, I guess, if he was in an American sport, if he was in an American context. But the whole situation here is different: Youre going into a country with 93% vaccination, where the prime minister saying, “Please dont come here” is part of the conservative coalition in Australia. In the States, if youre Aaron Rodgers, and you're talking about how Joe Rogan gives you medical advice, theres gonna be a loud and significant contingent of people who are behind you, and you can probably take some solace in that. In Djokovic’s situation, it seems like he probably doesnt have a lot of supporters in Australia. And if the population at large is at all representative of the crowd at Melbourne Park, that's gonna be a tough thing to live with. I don't think you can be the contrarian in this kind of situation and still get love. Thats just not going to work.

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JW: I think another mystery here is the Australian Open itself. The leadership of the tournament has done a pretty good job of divorcing itself from all this and basically saying, “Hey, look, this aint us. This is the government. This exemption process will be done blindly, anonymously.” And we can talk about that as well.

But yeah, you would think that a tennis tournament, if this were Roger Federer with Wimbledon or the French Open with Rafa Nadal, there would be a level of conversation where they would say, “Listen, this is really complicating matters for us. You're really putting us in a tight spot. Wed love for you to come, but you’ve got to get vaccinated. And if you dont want to, God bless you, but please dont come. This is really going to complicate matters for us.” I mean, tennis is a small sport. Everyone knows everyone. There are a lot of side deals, there are a lot of you be a team player, and I’ll be a team player for you. I'm really surprised the Australian Open let it come to this, because it can push this off all it wants on the government. But theres a lot of collateral damage here. This isnt the tournament publicity they wanted a week before matches start.

CA: Right. So I guess we should talk about the process for verifying or not verifying the the exemption that Djokovic got. You probably know more here than I do.

JW: Well, I struggle with this, because I do think we need to at least entertain the possibility that theres something here we don't know about. And there are obviously probably privacies and privileges that anyone should be entitled to. The flip side of that is: Its really curious that the acute condition Djokovic is claiming, one of the conditions per the governments paperwork … I mean, I've heard the exemption is for, say, people with artificial hearts. It is a little bit curious that this acute medical condition on which this exemption is based is so vague.

Djokovic has basically said: “Im not vaccinated.” And he hasnt used any sort of religious exemption. So he basically says theres a medical condition, an acute medical condition, that makes me eligible for this exemption, and you want to say: “What acute medical condition do you have thats not preventing you, as a 34 year-old athlete, from winning three majors?”

CA: From having the best year of your career last year!

JW: Exactly, coming off the best year of your career. We also know that Novak Djokovic, again because largely of his own doing, had COVID-19 in 2020 on the heels of this superspreader event that he led. So I think we need to at least leave the door open that there is a valid reason here, but it does strain credulity that a 34-year-old who won 27 matches at majors and is ranked No. 1 has a debilitating ailment that prevents him from getting vaccinated and still makes him eligible to cross international borders.

CA: Right. And, and I mean, weve seen other players like, Tennys Sandgren is the most prominent example, who have said, basically, Im opposed to vaccination, Im not going to get it. And none of the criteria here fits what I would need to get the exemption. So I cant play. And the big difference between Tennys Sandgren and Novak Djokovic, as far as we know, is that one of them has a lot more to play for, and the tournament has a lot more to get from them playing. And so of course, theres a possibility theres something going on here that we dont know. But it seems unlikely. Occams Razor would say there are a lot of other forces that are making the decisions here.

JW: Yeah, I mean, there are some players who were vaccinated, but they had the Sputnik vaccine that didnt meet Australian criteria. Yeah, I think well see how this plays out. By the time we finish this conversation, there may be more news, but it will be really interesting to see how this plays out if Djokovic does end up playing. It will be interesting to see how he is received in the locker room. Itll be interesting to see how hes received when he steps on court. Itll be interesting to see how that first press conference goes. I mean, I just think the big picture of this is: This guys going for history. This is an event hes won nine times, and, if he wins a 10th, he summits the mountain, and hes doing it under these conditions. Its just the strangest set of circumstances and yet oddly on brand.

CA: What a brand to have!

JW: Tennis, man.

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