The absolute circus that is the Novak Djokovic saga has been full of theatre, backflips and several twists and turns as we approach the final act on Monday.
Speculation on whether the World No. 1 would make the trip Down Under to contest for a tenth Australian Open title has been the topic on everyone's lips since Australia’s vaccine mandates were laid out.
It’s been no secret over the past two years that Djokovic has been, shall we say, hesitant on his views towards vaccination from COVID-19.
In April 2020 on a Facebook live chat, the 20-time Grand Slam champion revealed that he would refuse to get inoculated against the virus if a vaccine became available.
“Personally, I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,” Djokovic said.
“But if it becomes compulsory, what will happen? I will have to make a decision. I have my own thoughts about the matter and whether those thoughts will change at some point, I don’t know.”
Looking back, it seems those thoughts have not changed and appear very unlikely to.
Just two months after those comments were made, in the midst of the pandemic in June 2020, Djokovic decided to host a tennis tournament named the Adria Tour, held in Serbia and Croatia.
The tournament went off without a hitch in the opening week but it ran into some troubles in the second week. To put it simply, a bunch of players contracted coronavirus. The final of the tournament had to be cancelled after one of its participants, Grigor Dimitrov, caught the virus.
The Adria Tour got slammed by the media for its lack of COVID-19 safety measures between the players and the crowd in attendance. Social distancing was non-existent and masks were not an accessory to anyone’s face. Players were seen hugging, playing basketball on their days off and dancing shirtless at parties.
As for the tournament’s organiser, well, he tested positive for COVID-19 and had no choice but to make a statement apologising for the reckless nature of the event.
Since then, the best male tennis player on the planet has been able to freely bounce around the world, winning tournaments at his own pleasure. In fact, since contracting COVID-19 in 2020, Djokovic has managed to win seven titles - with three of them being Grand Slams.
The Serbian had faced no obstacles in his unvaccinated quest across the planet, but as is always the case, the petrol tank must run out at some point.
In October of 2021, Victoria was beginning to open its doors again after the state had significantly ramped up its vaccination push. It had become no secret that Victoria would become a vaccinated economy and in order to receive any sort of freedom, Victorians over the age of 16 had to have received two doses of the vaccine.
It soon became clear that in order to work in the state, citizens (and international guests) must be vaccinated against coronavirus.
Talk quickly turned to the impending summer of tennis and whether players would need to be vaccinated in order to play.
Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke indicated that unvaccinated players wouldn’t be able to enter the country. That was until Prime Minister Scott Morrison backflipped on that call, signalling that unvaccinated players could enter but would be subject to two weeks of state-run quarantine upon arrival.
The Prime Minister’s stance fell on the rather prominent deaf ears of Victorian leader Daniel Andrews, who unequivocally stated that his government would not be applying for any exemptions for unvaccinated athletes to play in the Australian Open.
“Victoria will not be applying for any exemptions for unvaccinated players,” Andrews stated in a press conference on the 26th of October, 2021.
“I’m not going to ask and actually require people sitting in the grandstand, people working at the event to be vaccinated while players aren’t.”
This stance appeared to slam the door shut on the potential of Djokovic enjoying an Aussie summer until, obviously, the tale decided to take a hook-turn down Olympic Boulevard.
With just over a month to go before the scheduled start of the Australian Open, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews pulled a 180 on his defiant October statement and indicated that Tennis Australia would determine the fate of unvaccinated players.
What we have learned since then is that Tennis Australia employed two separate independent medical panels to assess the case of each unvaccinated player wishing to enter Australia.
As 2021 drew to a close, the public was none the wiser in its pursuit of an answer regarding Djokovic’s vaccination and/or exemption status.
That was until the World No. 1 withdrew from Sydney’s ATP Cup, although the reason was never specified. This appeared to signal that the Serbian would not be heading Down Under to contest the Australian Open.
However, the grapevine was in full overdrive when Djokovic was spotted training with the Australian Open branded Dunlop tennis balls at an academy in Spain on the last day of 2021.
Many an eagle-eyed fan considered this to be a hint that Djokovic would grace the bright blue hue of Rod Laver Arena, and they were on the money.
On Tuesday the 4th of January, Djokovic took to social media to announce that he had been granted an “exemption permission” to enter Australia and subsequently participate in the Australian Open.
The announcement broke the internet and became a major talking point worldwide. Closer to home, Victorians shared their outrage and disgust with the decision to allow Djokovic into the country.
The backlash was so astronomical in its discontent that Tennis Australia was forced into damage control and by Wednesday morning, CEO Craig Tiley was conducting interviews from the nature strip in front of his Brighton home.
Tiley maintained that there had been “no special favour, no special opportunity granted to Novak” or any other unvaccinated player.
Tiley exclaimed that Djokovic had satisfied the requirements of the government and his independent panel of medical experts and therefore, was able to enter the country with a medical exemption.
Tiley appeared to hint that Djokovic was granted entry on the basis that he had contracted COVID-19 within the last six months, a sentiment the Serbian has recently echoed.
Then, the circus decided to bring out the lion-tamer and Djokovic was refused entry to Australia upon landing in Melbourne, and was promptly sent to a quarantine hotel in Carlton.
The Australian Border Force released the below statement on the reasons for Djokovic’s detainment.
Where it gets tricky is that Tennis Australia sent a letter to players that outlined the vaccination requirements in order to play. The issue is that some of the information in this letter was in fact incorrect, which has been at the root of the Djokovic saga.
Another twist to the tale is that Tennis Australia was warned by the Federal Government that prior infection within six months was not deemed an appropriate condition of entry to Australia in leaked documents uncovered by the Herald Sun.
Speaking on Channel Nine’s Weekend Today program on Sunday, Federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham spoke to clarify the entry requirements.
“The entry requirements into Australia though are where we have, in response to COVID-19 at different points, banned all entry or put additional requirements that sit over and above the visa conditions,” Birmingham said.
“One of those requirements very clearly is that you need to be double dosed vaccinated if you are not an Australian citizen to come into Australia. That’s been a very clear entry requirement, very clearly communicated to Tennis Australia as well.”
Since Djokovic’s detainment, the Serbian had his legal team mount a case for him to stay in Australia and participate in the Open, with the hearing to take place on Monday morning.
One key piece of evidence (uncovered by the Herald Sun) in which the Djokovic camp was hoping to use was a document issued by the Department of Home Affairs in regard to his Australian Travel Declaration.
This evidence, however, refers to an app that travellers can use to give an indication on whether they meet the requirements for entry to Australia. It certainly isn’t a stamped seal of approval, that’s for sure.
After earlier speculation, Djokovic confirmed that his reason for exemption was that he had contracted COVID-19 within the last six months. Funny that no one heard about this development.
Djokovic claims to have tested positive for coronavirus on the 16th of December 2021, well and truly after Tennis Australia was informed that recent infection was not grounds for a medical exemption. It was also past the December 10 deadline for medical exemptions to be submitted as outlined by Tennis Australia.
How did he think this would work? And why did Tennis Australia break its own protocols to allow it to happen?
So much for Djokovic receiving “no special favour” from Tennis Australia and Craig Tiley.
Where this story descends further into madness is what Djokovic was doing at the time of his positive test.
Images have been uncovered of the World No. 1 appearing maskless at an indoor ceremony and just a day later, posing maskless for photos with children at an awards ceremony.
What remains truly unfathomable is how this situation was allowed to get this far.
The discord between Federal and State governments, as well as Tennis Australia, has created a media and political storm that belies tennis’ time in the sun.
In the latest development, leaked documents (by The Age and Herald Sun) reveal that Tennis Australia’s chief medical officer wrote to Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton on November 22 asking about quarantine-free travel for players who have had a recent infection.
Sutton responded on December 2:
“Anyone with a history of recent COVID-19 infection (defined as within 6 months) and who can provide appropriate evidence of this medical history, is exempt from quarantine obligations upon arrival in Victoria from overseas.”
Tennis Australia also reportedly asked federal authorities to review the exemption applications of players three days before they boarded a plane Down Under. This was asked so they could avoid the situation in which they currently find themselves.
In response, Tennis Australia were told that the Health and Home Affairs departments are "unable to provide or review certificates" and that "certificates are reviewed at check in".
Earlier, Federal Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews applied to the Federal Circuit Court for a two-day extension on the hearing with was refused by Judge Anthony Kelly.
For now, the blame game is set to continue, something Victorians have become increasingly used to over the previous two years.
You just can't help but feel this situation could've been avoided entirely and there are surely more acts to come in this drama before it reaches its crescendo on Monday morning.
More to come.