For tennis fans, the gamble – which backfired so spectacularly – was offensive. For tennis players, it must have felt even worse
At 8.06pm on Sunday, the Australian Open issued a statement. “Tennis Australia respects the decision of the federal court,” it read. “As per grand slam rules the No 1 position in the draw has been filled by a lucky loser. The updated schedule for Monday 17 January can be viewed at ausopen.com. We look forward to a competitive and exciting Australian Open 2022 and wish all players the best of luck.”
It took tournament organisers 134 minutes to tweet these 58 words of nothingness – the antithesis of the past week’s drama.
Novak Djokovic’s bid to have his visa restored was officially dismissed at 5.52pm and the world No 1 would already have been at Melbourne airport before the governing body publicly acknowledged he was indeed leaving the country. The communication might as well have come by carrier pigeon.
Perhaps that was the objective? Ignore it and it will go away. Pretend that the federal court had not just taken the extraordinary step of sitting on a Sunday in January – and broadcasting itself on YouTube – to solve a scarcely conceivable scandal it had helped create, then quietly sign off. Wave a perfunctory goodbye, moonwalk out of the room and stroll down to Melbourne Park as if the first grand slam of 2022 has not been completely overshadowed by an ethical, legal and diplomatic hot mess.
Djokovic has left, but the hangover of his temporary presence is being keenly felt on day one of the tournament, and the wider ramifications will endure for some time yet, in an Australian election year and amid concerns from migration law experts that his expulsion sets a dangerous precedent for more deportations on political grounds.
Djokovic himself has become not only the unwitting personification of anti-vaccination sentiment, but also of Australia’s appalling mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and its confusing and sometimes contradictory pandemic response.
When it comes specifically to the standing of the country’s highest-profile international sporting event, Tennis Australia still has questions to answer beyond its brief statement. Chief among them is the role of its chief executive, Craig Tiley, who, by seeking to find a loophole to cater for an unvaccinated player chasing a record 21st grand slam title, has made Djokovic bigger than the tournament Tiley directs.
Even now, the political finger-pointing from the parties involved means some of the facts associated with the case remain in dispute. What we do know is that the medical exemption which was granted to Djokovic and approved by separate Tennis Australia and Victorian government expert panels was not endorsed by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi).
By setting up the exemption process in the first place, Tennis Australia co-opted an issue that is bigger than sport
Tiley had been informed by the federal government in writing more than once that a recent Covid infection – conveniently contracted by Djokovic in mid-December – was not an acceptable reason not to be fully vaccinated when attempting to gain quarantine-free entry into Australia.
In late November, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, stated in a letter that “people who contracted Covid within six months and seek to enter Australia from overseas, and have not received two doses of a TGA approved or recognised vaccine … are not considered fully vaccinated”.
Granted, Tennis Australia pushed for more clarity on the sometimes abstruse Atagi guidelines and also sought the help of home affairs to avoid players being turned around at the airport if they had the wrong documentation.
It spent months attempting to negotiate the complexities of Australia’s federal and state bureaucracies and their differing policies. Ultimately, in the end, it took a gamble.
“Primarily because there is much contradictory information the whole time, every single week we were talking to home affairs, we were talking to all parts of government to ensure that one, we were doing the right thing, and the right process with these exemptions,” Tiley told Nine three days after Djokovic was detained at the airport. “The conflicting information, and the contradictory information we received, was because of the changing environment. We are in a challenging environment.”
These are the known facts, but facts do not always measure mood, and on this point, Tiley misread the room.
By setting up the exemption process in the first place, Tennis Australia co-opted an issue that is bigger than sport. The move invalidated both the Victorian government’s vaccine mandate for all professional athletes and the Victorian people’s challenging experiences with the pandemic.
The incensed public reaction to Djokovic’s ill-fated Instagram post demonstrates how much this was the case. These personal hardships also raised questions one year ago about the virtues of holding the 2021 tournament, which welcomed international players and their entourages despite Australia’s hard border closures. This latest blow comes with a Djokovic-flavoured kick.
Blame could be directed at a number of parties with varying degrees of severity depending on which side of this polarising affair you sit. Tiley does not escape such scrutiny – and his role is now threatened. In recent months he spoke regularly with Djokovic and has been open about this dialogue. By doing so he has, at the very least, constructed the external perception – whether true or not – that the medical exemption process was effectively a “Djokovic process” that would not have been established for lower-profile players alone.
For many tennis fans, this is offensive. For tennis players, it must feel worse.
The result is a long-lasting blemish on the year’s opening major, eroding a glowing reputation Tiley himself has spent decades building.
He painstakingly earned a great deal of trust and respect over the years but accusations of favouritism have now spoiled that good faith.