On June 23, 2020, Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked male tennis player and winner of 20 Grand Slam titles, announced that he tested positive for COVID-19. The circumstances of how he contracted the coronavirus created controversy in his native Serbia – Djokovic had organized an exhibition event called the Adria Tour that featured players from across the Balkan region.
The Adria Tour consisted of matches held in the Serbian capital of Belgrade and the Croatian city of Zandar. Pandemic health protocols including face masks and social distancing were not enforced, nor was testing required of the players.
In addition to Djokovic, others who attended the event and later tested positive included his wife Jelena, three other players, the wife of one of the players and two coaches – no data was released on the post-event health of spectators.
“I am so deeply sorry our tournament has caused harm,” Djokovic said on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR). “We believed the tournament met all health protocols and the health of our region seemed in good condition to finally unite people for philanthropic reasons.”
Djokovic went into a 14-day quarantine after his apology, and his situation generated a level of goodwill from major players in the tennis world, who wished him a speedy recovery. At the time, many people assumed that would be the last time Djokovic’s name would be linked to COVID-19.
In February 2021, Djokovic ventured to Australia to participate in the Australian Open. The tournament required players to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in the country. As COVID vaccines were in the early stages of a global rollout, there was no mandate for players to have vaccinations prior to entering Australia.
Djokovic dominated the tournament, winning his ninth Australian Open title by defeating Russia’s Daniil Medvedev. At the start of 2021, Djokovic was hailed as a sports hero in Australia.
At the start of 2022, however, Australians had a significantly different opinion of Djokovic. How this came about is a bit complicated.
What Happened: In October 2021, the state government of Victoria (which is home to the Melbourne-based Australian Open) issued an edict that all players participating in the tennis event must be vaccinated for COVID-19.
On Dec. 7, 2021, Victoria State Deputy Premiere James Merlino acknowledged that medical exemptions would be made, but only in “exceptional circumstances – if you have an acute medical condition.”
Merlino added that the medical exemption caveat would not be used as a “a loophole for privileged tennis players” who were not vaccinated.
Many observers saw Merlino’s comments as a direct barb against Djokovic, who repeatedly declined to reveal his vaccination status, claiming it was an invasion of his privacy. But as the defending champion, he was not in the position to be coyly evasive on the subject.
Eleven days after Merlino’s comments, Djokovic took a COVID test. The following day, he attended an event in Belgrade honoring young tennis players. Djokovic said he took an antigen test before the event that came back as negative – although after the event, he received the result of the previous day’s test, and it came back positive.
On Dec. 18, one day after getting the positive test result, Djokovic did an interview and photo shoot for the French newspaper L’Equipe. He did not divulge his test status at the time, although later he would claim, “On reflection, this was an error of judgment.” Four days later, he took another COVID test, with a negative result.
Then What Happened: On Dec. 29, Djokovic withdrew from his place on the Serbian team heading to Australia for the ATP Cup, a tennis tournament held prior to the Australian Open. No explanation on his decision was provided.
On New Year’s Day, Craig Tiley, the director of the Australian Open, responded to inquiries regarding Djokovic’s participation in the tournament. Tiley cryptically responded, “There’s quite a bit to play out, and I think it will play out in the coming days.”
On Jan. 4, Djokovic announced on Instagram that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission.” Tennis Australia issued its own statement that the exemption for the defending champion was “granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts.” Neither party defined the specifics of the exemption.
Djokovic arrived at Melbourne Tullamarine Airport on Jan. 5, but many Australians were unhappy at his presence – the country had been dealing with strict lockdowns to mitigate rising COVID levels, while residents in Victoria had a vaccine mandate imposed on them by their state government two months earlier. Djokovic’s entry into Australia is initially delayed, which was originally attributed to a mistake on his visa application.
After being detained at the airport for eight hours, the Australian government announced Djokovic’s visa was canceled, and he would be denied entry into the country. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison inserted himself into the matter by tweeting: “Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders.”
Djokovic was escorted to a hotel in suburban Melbourne where detained immigrants are held. On Jan. 10, following a court appeal, Djokovic’s visa is reinstated, and he released from detention. In his appeal, he acknowledged that he was not vaccinated and had evidence he was infected with COVID in the previous month. Under Australian law, the appeal added, people who were infected with COVID within six months were eligible for a temporary exemption from the Australian vaccination rules.
The Show Almost Goes On: On Jan. 11, Djokovic was confirmed as No. 1 seed for Australian Open. Daniil Medvedev, his opponent from the previous year’s tournament final, is seeded second.
On Jan. 12, Djokovic admitted to an “administrative mistake” on his travel declaration for Australia by not mentioning he was in multiple countries in the two weeks before arriving in Australia, as well as an “error of judgment” for the Dec. 18 interview and photo shoot. He blamed his agent for filling out the declaration form incorrectly.
Then, on Jan. 14, the Australian government revoked Djokovic’s passport for a second time – Immigration Minister Alex Hawke intervened in the case to rule against the athlete.
“Given Mr. Djokovic’s high-profile status and position as a role model in the sporting and broader community, his ongoing presence in Australia may foster similar disregard for the precautionary requirements following receipt of a positive COVID-19 test in Australia,” stated Hawke in explaining his decision. “In particular, his behavior may encourage or influence others to emulate his prior conduct and fail to comply with appropriate health measures following a positive COVID-19 test, which itself could lead to the transmission of the disease and serious risk to their health and others.”
The Serbian government filed a protest, claiming that Djokovic carried both a standard and diplomatic passport – he received the latter after his country won the Davis Cup in 2011. But Australian law does not provide special rights to anyone holding a diplomatic passport, so the Serbian government’s protest was moot.
On the morning of Jan. 15, Djokovic was detained by Australian immigration authorities. With his permission, his whereabouts were not disclosed to avoid excessive media attention. As of this writing, his case is scheduled to be heard in Australia’s Federal Court on Sunday.
If Djokovic’s appeal is successful, he will be able to compete in the Australian Open on Jan. 17. If the appeal is denied, he will be deported and will not be eligible to re-enter Australia for another three years.
Another unresolved factor is whether Djokovic’s corporate sponsors, including ASICS (OTC:ASCCF) and the Peugeot automobile unit of Stellantis NV (NYSE:STLA) will stand by him or drop him. The athlete makes $30 million a year from sponsorships, and as of this writing his corporate backers have not deserted him.
Photo: Carine06 / Wikimedia