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Ridiculous. Farcical. Bizarre. Unfair. These were just some of the words used to describe the Novak Djokovic visa saga upon his arrival in January.

It was a tale that lasted two weeks culminating in the 21-time Grand Slam winner being deported for three years. The Serbian star now nervously awaits to see if his three-year ban from Australia will be lifted and if he will be allowed to contest the Australian Open.

After months of speculation, the former world number one announced on social media that he was coming down under.

Australians exploded. There was massive backlash. They were furious. Enraged that after having to endure the world's longest lockdowns, an athlete was coming here unvaccinated to compete.

An uproar emerged by the public resulting in different levels of Government pointing the finger at each other. Tennis Australia seemed to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they wanted to support their number one marquee player. And on the other hand, they did not want to be in conflict with the government authorities.

The nine-time Australian Open winner had been granted an exemption by Tennis Australia to come to Australia and compete. The exemption was on the grounds he had recovered from Covid a month earlier. But allowing him to come here was seen as a massive 'kick in the guts' by those who had sacrificed so much to prevent the spread of the disease.

Despite what many may think of his anti-vax stance, the flight from his native Serbia to Australia is not a short trip. Such a long flight, it even involved a stopover in Dubai, and Djokovic would not have boarded the plane to come here if he had not been granted a medical exemption.

Rightly or wrongly, that medical exemption was also granted to other tennis players including Czech player Renata Voracova.

Whether they should have been granted an exemption in the first instance is debatable. Many neutral observers argue they should never have been granted an exemption after vaccinations were mandated here in Australia. But the crucial point is they were granted an exemption. And they would not have travelled to Australia had they not been granted an exemption.

Since the global Covid-19 pandemic hit Australia in early 2020, we’ve seen and heard of numerous gut-wrenching stories.

Some people have been unable to see their dying family members, while others have been prevented from attending the funerals of loved ones. State borders were shut and premiers and their health teams refused to grant exemptions. People have been suffering.

We’ve seen businesses forced to shut shop, weddings cancelled, and many other special

milestones and occasions postponed.

Medical professionals and aviation industry staff lost their jobs due to their refusal to get

vaccinated. Teachers and other staff who refused to be vaccinated were stood down, many without pay. Professional AFL Footballer Liam Jones was forced to step away from the game he loved due to his anti-vax stance.

All of this has caused resentment by the public.

Then Djokovic announced he is coming to play tennis down under. Of course, there was going to be backlash.

One of the most devastating stories was of 26-year-old Sarah Caisip. A young woman from Canberra denied permission to attend the Brisbane funeral of her father, Bernard, who sadly lost his battle with cancer. It was incredibly harsh. It was heartbreaking.

At the time then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to plead for empathy, compassion and common sense. He argued the young lady should be allowed to travel to attend her father’s funeral on compassionate grounds. But Queensland’s Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young refused the young woman’s requests. Which is a story in itself. The level of power each Premier has over their jurisdiction is incredible. That's a story for a different day.

Prohibiting Caisip from attending her father's funeral was a brutal decision. One that should never have happened. Since when did we become so inhumane?

That story hit Aussies hard. Even people who did not know Caisip were impacted by the harshness of this decision. Some even used it as their reasoning for not wanting to allow Djokovic to compete here.

But are we taking out our frustration with a government imposing unnecessary lockdowns on the wrong party? Upon reflection, one might find that the frustration is directed towards an international athlete who has nothing to do with those imposed restrictions.

Following his social media post, there was an outcry. Those who had businesses closed and were deprived of seeing loved ones were left with a sour taste in their mouths. On social media, many others joined the pile-on.

The indifference was hard to believe and it made many Melburnians angry after they had to put up with extreme lockdowns for the past two years.

As a Melbournian who has had to endure the world’s longest lockdown, I totally understand the frustration expressed by members of the public.

But their anger, frustration and feelings of resentment should have been directed at the Government who granted him the exemption rather than at the former world number one.

Novak applied for an exemption and was granted one by two independent medical professional teams by Tennis Australia and the Victorian Department of Health. It consisted of medical experts with experience in cardiology, immunology and sports medicine, who gave the final nod of approval. It is important to note the names of those seeking an exemption were removed from the application to avoid any bias and to ensure the independence of the final decision.

Due to the uproar, by the time Djokovic arrived in Australia, authorities decided he was not allowed to stay. His visa was revoked by border force officers upon arrival at Melbourne Airport.

Djokovic was told by the Australian Border Force he had insufficient evidence to prove his exemption was justified and was detained against his own will.

Initially the Victorian Government, Tennis Australia and the Federal Government all went silent. None of the parties wanted to take ownership of the mess-up.

Eventually the Federal Government stepped up and decided to stop him. Djokovic appealed the first decision to revoke his visa.

The burden of proof was on Djokovic to justify his entry into Australia, not the government. He did that in the Federal Circuit Court.

Djokovic's lawyers argued that the then-world number one tennis player had a medical exemption because ATAGI had granted him the right to play.

After over seven hours of deliberations, Judge Anthony Kelly handed down his verdict. He ruled in Novak's favor. The decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa was overturned in the Federal Circuit Court.

Djokovic was interviewed seven times throughout the early hours of the Thursday morning when he arrived by Australian Border Force staff at the airport. The transcript of those interviews makes for some fascinating reading.

From the transcript of the interviews with the Serbian world number one tennis player, it is clear Border Force staff were pressuring Djokovic to provide information at 4am without the use of his phone.

Not only had he travelled a long distance already and would have been exhausted, but he had also already been detained for almost four hours at that stage. They were requesting he provide further information at 4am and as Djokovic pointed out to them on several occasions, he could not contact Tennis Australia or Government officials as it was 4am and they would have all been sleeping. He asked if any decisions could be held off until 8am so he could then contact his lawyers and Tennis Australia. However, this was refused and around 6am, his visa was cancelled and he was taken to be placed in a detention facility.

It was bizarre. It's no surprise Judge Anthony Kelly was agitated and concluded asking, "What more could this man have done?"

Vaccination status aside, he was granted entry for a reason. The reason is that he did everything by the book to have that initial exemption approved. The judge himself admitted there was nothing else he could have done and that it was all above board.

In a court of law, both parties have the opportunity to present their arguments in front of the judge and/or jury before a verdict is made.

In this case, Djokovic and his team presented their case and the Government presented their view.

Following submissions made by both the Commonwealth and Novak Djokovic’s legal team, Judge Anthony Kelly stated that, “It would appear Covid-negative Novak has complied with all health entry requirements.”

In laying out his verdict and the reasoning behind it, Judge A. Kelly outlined that Novak did not pose an unreasonable health risk to Australia. He then quashed the decision to revoke Djokovic’s visa on the basis that he had been given insufficient time to respond to the intention to cancel under s. 116 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth).

The Court further ordered that the Commonwealth pay Djokovic’s legal costs, immediately release him from detention and return his passport and all other personal belongings to him.

However, the Government was eager to save face. So, they appealed that decision and took him to the High Court.

And the case was unique. Usually in a court case, a prosecutor needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt that an offence has been committed. However, the immigration minister then decided to use their own personal powers and cancel the Serbian's visa based on Djokovic's presence could 'excite anti-vax sentiment'.

Under that accusation, the immigration minister did not have a burden of proof. There was no evidence that Djokovic's presence would in fact excite anti-vax sentiment but merely that it could. It was a legal loophole that would not have worked in any other case.

The 35-year-old successfully appealed the first time. But when the then-immigration minister, Hawke, used his personal powers to prevent Djokovic on the basis his presence could “excite anti-vax sentiment” in the country, the Serbian accepted the decision. The opinionated star was booted out of the country just as the Australian Open was set to commence.

Tennis fans were deprived of watching him chase a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam at the time (Djokovic has since won Wimbledon this year).

There are hardly any winners in this whole debacle.

The Australian Open took a massive hit to its reputation. So did the Victorian and Federal government which have been embarrassed on a global stage. And Djokovic was put through an unnecessary ordeal which could have been easily prevented.

Since the whole debacle occurred in January, a lot has changed in Australia.

Following the Federal election in May, the federal government has changed. The immigration minister who exercised his own powers and banned Djokovic, Alex Hawke, has been replaced with Andrew Giles.

State and international borders have reopened. International visitors are not required to self-isolate, nor do they need to wear masks.

And with a state election fast looming in Victoria, a premier who has kept this state in the longest lockdowns in the world has unsurprisingly let loose. Only months out from the election, the mask mandate has been lifted, social distancing rules have been relaxed and self-isolation periods abolished. Some might argue it is because Covid has spread within the community and over 95% of the population are vaccinated. This may be the case, but it is interesting these decisions have been made so close to an election.

Now the question remains - will Djokovic be allowed to enter Australia and compete in the Australian Open?

Voracova, who was also deported this year after arriving in Australia with a medical exemption, has already had her ban removed. The Czech doubles player successfully appealed her three-year ban in July and had it quashed. Thus, allowing the doubles world No 121 to compete in the upcoming Australian Open.

But the judge who ruled in Voracova's favour has explained why Djokovic may find it more difficult to receive the same treatment.

“I also note, for completeness, that Ms Voracova’s case can be distinguished from [the] Djokovic [case] because her visa was not cancelled on the grounds of ‘good order,’ nor do the circumstances of her case lend themselves to such a conclusion,” Jan Redfern wrote when summing up the hearing earlier this year, according to The Age.

“As noted, Ms Voracova is not opposed to vaccination and, unlike the Djokovic case where the minister apparently found there was evidence Mr Djokovic had shown a disregard for the self-isolation protocols, there is no such evidence before me to this effect in this case.”

The 21-time Grand Slam winner’s case is different to Voracova because his visa was revoked by the then-Immigration Minister using his personal powers, after it had been reinstated.

A key difference is Voracova has a medical exemption, explaining why the 11-time doubles winner cannot be vaccinated, whereas the Serbian star doesn't. Djokovic feels that he should have the right to make his own decisions about what goes into his own body. If anyone else was making that claim, we would not bat an eyelid.

However, as he is in the limelight for his achievements, the case could be argued that he is being treated differently. Considering he has been on top of the world for so long (he spent a record 361 weeks as the world number one), it is fair to say he does know what is best for his own body.

Prevention and measures to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 have come along way over the past couple of years.

Every person has the right to make decisions that impact their own bodies and their loved ones.

So much has changed in the understanding and mitigating of the spread of Covid-19. To the point where airlines do not even require passengers to wear masks on their flights.

He is a nine-time Australian Open Grand Slam winner. A 21-time Grand Slam Singles winner, he has won 90 ATP singles titles, five ATP Finals titles, and a record 38 ATP Masters titles. He is the only male player to have won all nine of the Masters tournaments, and he has achieved this twice. He deserves more respect than what has been provided.

It was disappointing to see that players like Nadal came out and spoke against Djokovic.

But then again it was not overly surprising considering Nadal was the one to benefit mostly by Djokovic’s omission.

The lockdowns and restrictions in place in Melbourne and Australia were tough. Took its toll on everyone.

People understandably feel an injustice when they were deprived of seeing loved ones and yet a tennis player was able to travel here and apply his craft. However, directing that anger and frustration at a Serbian Tennis player who had nothing to do with the ridiculous restrictions would be wrong.

In January, when this saga unfolded, a Federal election was only months away and a Victorian state election 10 months away.

Both the Victorian and Federal Governments were conscious of how this may impact their election outcomes.

It had nothing to do with spreading covid. He already had covid so had developed antibodies.

If the question of whether Djokovic poses a health risk to Australia is the reason whether he is allowed to play or not, surely he poses as much risk as any other unvaccinated person. If anything, he probably poses less risk than unvaccinated Australians as he has contracted Covid-19 and has developed antibodies.

Also, a large proportion of vaccinated Australians have now contracted Covid-19 which means their bodies have developed antibodies to fight the virus too.

Nick Kyrgios has often said and acted in very questionable ways throughout his career. He is usually very vocal and, in the past, has not had much nice things to say about Novak. However, even he came to Novak’s defence and said he felt “so sorry for him” and “embarrassed as an Australian athlete” about the treatment of the embattled Serbian star. Kyrgios was quick to point out that Djokovic dug deep and donated $25,000 to help Australians battling the devastating bushfires only two years earlier.

Have we become a nation where we are not grateful? Djokovic helped us when Aussies were struggling with the bushfires, should we not reciprocate the kind gesture and welcome him back with open arms?

And then there is the emotional impact this is having on Novak and his family. As Nick Kyrgios also pointed out, this whole saga would be extremely stressful for Djokovic’s family.

As Tracey Holmes reported, “According to Australian policy at the time that Djokovic boarded his flight on January 5 in Dubai, he was not a risk. By the time he landed, he had become one”.

The grounds stated for Djokovic’s original cancellation were that the Australian Border Force did not accept a valid medical exemption.

The Border Force policy changed while he was on his flight.

As Abul Risvi, the former deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration, explained, until and including the fifth of January, the policy was the Border was open to people who had Covid in the last six months as that was a valid reason for a medical exemption.

On the sixth of January, the policy changed. Now that is not fair. It is not fair to change the policy for people who are already on a flight, given they boarded that flight based on the assumption they were allowed to.

If you want to change the policy on the sixth then fine, but apply it for people who are not already on their flights – apply for it people who are about to board.

There is no point dwelling on the past, but it would be ignorant to not learn from the mistakes of the past.

There are epidemiologists and health experts who make decisions that are well above my pay grade. And we accept their guidance as they have spent years studying the impact of these things. Now they are saying that it is safe for us to go back to a Covid-normal, no need to isolate for seven days and masks are no longer mandatory. The Australian Open is going to back to full capacity. If we ensure we take care and responsibility, then it is not fair to single one player out and treat them differently.

Voracova and others have been allowed to return and play. Liam Jones has signed on to return to football next season with the Western Bulldogs. Unvaccinated staff who were stood down by their employers have been reinstated as the vaccine mandate has been abolished. Borders have been reopened and mask mandates have gone. Now it's time Djokovic is also given a fair chance.

Everyone wants to see the best tennis players compete on the biggest stage and no one wants to miss out on that.

Sport used to unite people. It used to be blind to politics, sex, gender, race, religion and status. Now more than ever sport has been dragged into the political arena - arguably kicking and screaming.

Djokovic's inability to compete in the Australian Open is a prime example. With all the restrictions that have been eased and others being allowed to compete, it would be a grave injustice depriving the world number seven again. It would be unfair to single him out. It's time we leave politics out of sport and let him play.

Australia made headlines around the world in January for all the wrong reasons. It was farcical.

Let’s not make the same mistake again.


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