There are undoubtedly many words you could reach for if you were looking for just one to encapsulate the last few days or so in the never-ending Novak Djokovic/Australian Open fiasco; confusing, embarrassing, messy, borderline comical at times. The word that might be most appropriate might be the one that tortures Djokovic swaths of supporters the most; avoidable.
It’s difficult to efficiently summarise the entire series of events that have led us here, to tennis’ biggest male star sitting in a quarantine hotel in Melbourne, awaiting a flight back in the opposite direction after being unceremoniously denied entry at the Australian border. FanSided’s own Danny Bennett caught us up to speed on the latest developments, which saw the situation flipped entirely on its head in the space of one long-haul international flight. Within a matter of hours, Djokovic went from all but confirmed to be stepping out on Rod Laver Area in just under two weeks to defend his Australian Open crown to all but confirmed to be watching the tournament from his couch at home thousands of miles away from Melbourne Park. The bizarre developments have angered just about everyone from all sides of the aisle and left most feeling aggrieved, few vindicated, and what was already going to be an inherently political issue has spiraled completely out of control.
Let’s bring the narrow the scope to tennis, specifically, the man at the center of it all. Regardless of how you feel about vaccines, mandates, exemptions, or any of the other COVID related issues that we’re all sick of endless debating, the reality remains that Djokovic could have bypassed all of this drama, this ridiculous circus, and the hours of frustration it has likely brought his way, by doing a straightforward thing; getting vaccinated. Whether he fundamentally agrees or disagrees with the fact that his hand is effectively being forced (and he’s made it quite clear the latter is the truth), sooner or later, Djokovic is going to be forced to recognise the fact that the powers he is ideologically up against are too great for even him to overcome.
That can’t be a feeling he is used to; after all, Djokovic has never met a foe on the tennis court that he didn’t fully believe he could vanquish, and his dizzying list of career accomplishments would suggest he is justified in that unflinching confidence. You might even say that his stubbornness, his refusal to bend to his opponent’s will, is the number one attribute that has made him maybe the greatest player his sport has ever seen. But this episode at Melbourne Airport proves that off the court, he is just a man, far from bulletproof, and that he cannot win every battle on pure will and stubbornness alone.
The obvious question looms in the background of the ongoing circus; what happens if more tournaments follow in the Australian Open’s footsteps and make vaccination mandatory for players? US-based Masters tournaments Indian Wells, Miami, and Cincinnati, are already expected to introduce mandatory vaccination requirements for their events later this year. Recent strong comments from French President Emmanuel Macron regarding the future for unvaccinated citizens in France have the world wondering whether the French Open will be forced to adopt similarly strict policies around admitting unvaccinated players into their country. The world is changing rapidly, and the tennis world, which has lagged behind somewhat in the last two years, appears to be finally ready to follow suit. Djokovic and the other small portion of unvaccinated players on tour can continue to fight against the tide and apply for exemptions. Still, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before they find themselves exhausted by the process.
This is an incredibly fluid situation, and for all we know, there could be many twists yet in this tale. However, the last 48 hours have dealt Djokovic a dose of cold reality. Even if he can pull one of out of the bag, like we’ve seen him do countless times on court in his sparkling tennis career, and win the fight for his right to get on court and contest for his 10th Australian Open crown, the writing might already be on the wall. His future as an unvaccinated individual trying to make a living travelling from country to country, in a world where it is becoming increasingly uncompromising to those of his ideology, doesn’t feel like one that is sustainable.
The world’s most headstrong sports star has his back squarely against the wall, and lord knows what’s coming next. If the last two days have taught us anything, it’s that he’s fighting an uphill battle unlike any he’s ever faced.