Lessons from the Djokovic Controversy Published on: 17 Jan, 2022


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On the face of it, Novak Djokovic’s failed attempt to play the Australian Open may seem like a simple case of sports being subjected to politics, yet, this case will go down in history as a salient reminder to all, not just sportsmen, that principles and laws come first. Nobody, however big, is above the law and nobody can break rules, no matter how indispensable they think they are.

Djokovic holds the Australian Open crown, having won it three times in succession, and a record nine times in his career so far. He is currently tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for having done 20 Grand Slams in his career. The Australian Open championship was crucial for him as it would have made him the winner of the highest number of Grand Slams.

The Australian Open entry rules this year had mandated that participants in the Open would have to be fully vaccinated, in line with the rules for entry into Australia. As Djokovic had proclaimed his intention not to get vaccinated it was clear that he would not participate in this tournament. But he suddenly did a U-turn and announced that he would seek an exemption from vaccination and take part in the tournament. This was, it is learnt, based on his conviction that he had had a corona-virus infection earlier, implying sufficient immunity, and the consequent green-light from Australian Open officials and local authorities in the State of Victoria in which Melbourne comes.

Although he had a valid visa for Australia, he was detained at Melbourne Airport when he flew in from Spain via Dubai. He was sent to an austere private quarantine hotel.  The Australian Prime Minister cleared the air on the matter saying that Djokovic’s entry had been denied because he was unvaccinated.

His legal case has been as big a see-saw as any of his matches with Nadal or Federer. After five days of quarantine, a local Judge ruled in his favour by surmising that he had been treated unfairly and reinstated his visa. That was the starting point for the matter to become internationally debated, controversial and publicly all-consuming. Layer by layer it was revealed that he had concealed his corona-positivity with people whom he was meeting with. His veracity began to be doubted with reports that he had also travelled to places whose mention he had not made to immigration officials.

This prompted the Australian Government at the highest level, through the Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, to decide to cancel his visa on the grounds of “health and good order.” Lawyers for Djokovic and the Australian Government argued before a three-judge bench on Sunday the 14th January. The Judges have ruled that Australian Immigration Minister was within his rights to cancel the unvaccinated tennis star’s visa on the basis that the player could pose a risk to public health and order. This is the final forum and this verdict cannot be appealed against. Besides, Djokovic has been penalized as he has been directed to pay for the Australian Government’s legal expenditures in this matter.

Djokovic’s case has become a celebrated one with his home people of Serbia, where the President said that he has been treated unfairly and would be more than welcome back home as a national hero. Djokovic has left for Dubai from where he will fly to Serbia. "For this Tennis the Menace the Open has become a Close" as commented on social media.

There are indeed some key lessons from this famous case. They are:

  • Nobody is above national laws and constitution
  • One must confirm about host country laws before travelling there
  • One must be sensitive to the local health, environmental and governance issues and not take them for granted – Health and environment issues are new barriers to just about everything
  • You cannot fight a national government on its own turf
  • Governments are desperate to set examples, who better than a top celebrity to drive home a point and so those in important positions should be even more careful
  • One’s home government can offer moral support but cannot secure condonation from breaking of rules thanks to increased information flows and transparency in governance
  • Tournament officials should only volunteer that much latitude in rules as is within the framework of host-country laws
  • National Government’s should be more sensitive to special cases such as that of Djokovic and deal with them with enlightenment and finesse: detaining him with refugees and asylum seekers was shabby and unbecoming for a government – it has damaged Australia’s reputation globally and projected it as an idiosyncratic government liable to bend to the whims of local politics
  • Controversy at an international level when one is wrong, can reduce a star to a meteorite: e.g., Djokovic to a Joker
  • Ultimately, nobody is indispensable; as Rafael Nadal said, “If he’s playing its Ok, if he’s not playing the Australian Open will be a great Australian Open”






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