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The Novak Djokovic Saga in Australia Keeps Getting Weirder

The Serbian president has called the tennis player's dismissal at the border in Melbourne 'harassment.' Djokovic's father has compared it to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He could be facing a three-year ban from Australia.

Over the course of the last week, Novak Djokovic has announced that he was granted an exemption from the Australian COVID-19 vaccine mandate to play in the Australian Open. Then, upon arrival his visa was denied. Now, Djokovic is sitting in limbo, waiting in an Australian hotel for his appeal to be heard. If it is denied, he could be facing a three-year ban from the country. Meanwhile, the situation has escalated to an international incident, with the Australian and Serbian heads of state both weighing in alongside celebrities and online pundits. So, two members of Sports Illustrated's tennis team tried to make sense of everything that's happened since they last chatted Wednesday.

Note: This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jon Wertheim: I thought of one place to start: Just like when Maria Sharapova had her doping controversy, one of the judges in her case had this line that gets a lot of replay: ”You are the sole author of your own misfortune.” That does not seem to apply here. We are now learning that this is a lot more complicated than, as culpable as he may be, Novak Djokovic tried to find a side door.

Chris Almeida: How do you mean?

JW: It sounds like Tennis Australia was obviously incentivized to have as many players, especially top players, come. But also, this is a key: This is a tournament within tennis which has really branded itself the players’ event. They listen to the players, they coddle the players, then the players arrive and they get their flights paid for and they get a per diem, and they get a pair of free UGGs free to take home. I mean, it's really, it's very on brand that Tennis Australia, charitably, took some shortcuts in assisting players getting into the country who would otherwise not be eligible. But that is a very charitable way of phrasing what happened.

CA: Yeah. I guess the weird thing for me is how unsurprising that part of it is. This element, Tennis Australia botching this, is clearly the biggest news from this in the last 24 hours. But if you told me: This sporting group in the United States with the incentive to make money is pushing around government rules so that they can make more money. I'd be like: That's the least surprising thing I've ever heard. Isn’t the surprising thing here that then the government went to them and said, “No, f--- off?

JW: Well, first of all: this isn't a totally independent organization. This is the Australian Open that gets a lot of money and public funds and is very much tied to Victoria. It's not like the Yankees are trying to smuggle in a player outside the system. This is a sporting event that gets a lot of money from the government. But I also think that the great unanswered question is like, not that Tennis Australia would try and find some side doors to get the players in. But: How does Djokovic board the plane? Is sort of the mystery to me. He may have this exemption card, which now seems fairly dubious. But how does the Australian Border Force basically look at this when he gets onto the plane and allow him to board? Seems like there's a real disconnect between what I think are two separate things. One of them is these visa applications. But also this exemption where the border, the border force, basically let him board the plane. I think that's where somebody fell asleep at the switch. I think it was a combination of people playing fast and loose with regulations; I think part of it is sort of duplicity, but part of it seems to be incompetence. I mean, it seems like there's a disconnect between even if he had this sort of wink-wink from Tennis Australia, how he was allowed to board the plane is a mystery. And I think there's sort of two strands to this that people are conflating into one.

CA: How thorough is the screening that you're getting when you're leaving Serbia as opposed to when you're arriving? Or is the difference here just in the actions of random individuals who work for Australian border patrol who applied the rules differently?

JW: That's a great question. So, I'm under the impression he flew privately. So he landed at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne. It's not like he went to JFK or had a fight with the Qantas team at the counter. But I mean, the bottom line here is that no one is covered in glory. And it now seems as though Tennis Australia was complicit in this.

And, you know, again, I think we need to step back and say, if the guy had just gotten the damn prick, that billions of people worldwide and 95% of his peers and 100% of the people who are paying to watch him play did … if he did the same thing as them just as a show of respect, we wouldn't be here. But it does seem like there were these false pretenses that he was acting on. And we can argue about levels of culpability, but it does seem like there are other bad actors and guilty parties here.

CA: Weirdly enough, I feel like that’s the part that's getting lost in all of this. Nick Kyrgios, of all people, was tweeting last night, sort of defending Djokovic, who he very clearly does not like. You see stuff like that and you wonder: Oh, you know, is the anger and the backlash really overblown? When the thing that we're actually talking about here is like, just somebody going all-in on a conspiracy theory?

JW: So everyone's acting in their best interest, right? And I think there's a whole separate discussion about just what we're seeing in the response to this series of events and the divergence between the response globally, whether it's Charles Barkley or whether it's the Sydney Morning Herald op-ed page, to what the responses are in Serbia. I think that gap tells you a lot.

And then there's a whole conversation that I'm a little hung up on that this—meaning rejecting Djokovic—is a political play. Like, isn't this what governments do? They respond to the will of the people and they try to close loopholes? I don't think it's so bad that a government says: Wait a second, our people are really angry. Our rules seem to have been contravened. Let's do what we can to address this. So, cynically yes, there's an election coming up and cynically, other players have gotten in before Djokovic. But they did not gloat about it on Instagram. Anyway, I don't think it's the biggest tragedy that a government is acting in response to political will, the fact that there is a population that's very upset about this loophole and about athletes getting preferential treatment, and about rules being skirted if not circumvented. I don't think it's such a tragedy that a government would respond to that, even if you wish it hadn't happened at this late date.

CA: Right. But something could be a political play. And it can also make sense, right? Those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

JW: 93% of the people are vaccinated. They're really upset about this. It seems wrong. It seems like there was a loophole. I feel like, in a strange way, what’s happening is a sign of a functioning democracy. They're responding to public outrage and a flaw in policy. I don't condemn them for that.

CA: Yeah, no disagreement here.

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JW: And we should be cautious about making overly broad generalizations, but as we were saying earlier, I do think the response you have seen inside Serbia versus outside Serbia gives you some window into the world in which Djokovic operates.

CA: Yeah, I think we talked a couple of weeks ago, when you were writing your piece for the magazine, and wondering about what makes Djokovic tick. And we talked about the Scott Galloway line, which is about Adam Neumann or, more generally, millennial startup con men: “If you tell a 30-year-old man he is Jesus Christ, he is inclined to believe you.”

And now, what do you know? You have Novak Djokovic’s dad saying that what is happening now is like Jesus being crucified. And then you say, Ah, now I know what's going on here. When we did our last chat, I think the point that we hit on the most was: Why can't he read the room? And I think that this should tell you exactly why! If his whole team is saying things like what his father is saying, and I imagine that his family is a pretty substantial part of his team, then yeah, I guess he wouldn't be questioning a lot of his gut instincts.

JW: Yeah, I mean, I have never seen, say, the leader of Switzerland weigh in on Roger Federer. I mean, I think that Djokovic represents a country in a different way than almost any other athlete. He's really a national figure.

CA: ​​The only point of comparison that I can think of is Manny Pacquiao. Right?

JW: Oh, that's good. Yeah, that's good.

CA: And I mean, now, Pacquiao’s situation is even complicated by the fact that he's on the wrong side of the leader of the Philippines. But before that, if you were trying to think of a sportsman who can do no wrong because he's just so important to the country's image and perception of itself and standing in the world, I think that's really the only person that's comparable. And certainly there's nothing else like that in tennis.

JW: And I think that's, you know, you see these, you know, all the top players have fans. But they don't have necessarily people wrapping themselves in flags and chanting songs for situations like this. This already has become an issue internally where Serbians are saying: This is an affront to Serbia. And I think what you're seeing is that the dynamics and pressures that Djokovic plays under … it's easy to see how he's insulated from a certain reality. And it's also sort of easy to see how he gets validation for acts that other players wouldn't get positive reinforcement for.

CA: I think with, every athlete in the United States, you know, wherever they fall on the political spectrum, you see people hedge all the time, right? You see LeBron James hedge, you see Tom Brady hedge. You know, after Brady had the MAGA hat in his locker, any mention of Trump disappeared. And you never heard about it again.

JW: And he was called out. He knew there was condemnation.

CA: Right. And I can't think of very many public figures that wouldn't respond to that by trying to do some damage control. And I can't think of the last time that Novak Djokovic did any damage control. I certainly don't think that's gonna start now. If he got vaccinated or said I'm sorry to the people of Australia, I would be absolutely shocked. I don't think that's what's coming here. So I guess that prompts the question going forward into the tournament: What the hell are we looking at?

JW: We have sort of a range of options here. Monday, we'll hear this appeal. I think reading between the lines, it looks as though his appeal will be denied. That comes with a three-year ban. Djokovic turns 35 years old this year. He's won the Australian Open more times than Roger Federer has won Wimbledon. His record here is pretty close to Nadal’s at the French Open. Can you imagine Rafa Nadal being banned from France for what, in effect, will be the rest of his career? I think if I had to lay odds, the fact that Tennis Australia gave him this bogus information. I think that might reduce the punishment.

If I were laying odds, my guess would be that he is not allowed to play this year. But maybe he gets that three-year ban reduced, and we see him next year. Hopefully vaccinated.

CA: Yeah, I wouldn't bet on it. But if he was banned for three years, in a lot of ways that would be a shame if Tennis Australia was basically saying, Yeah, don’t worry about getting the shot. We’ll make the system work for you, anyway. Then they weren’t even making Djokovic confront his own inflexibility. They weren’t putting him in the position to make his own hard decisions. He was basically, depending on how you look at it, done in or bailed out, by an organization that is too incompetent to be corrupt.

But, anyway, what if because of this none of the Big Three won again? What a way to find ourselves at the end!

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