Belgium in Brief: Djokovic courts controversy

It wasn’t meant to be this way. What was intended as a riveting celebration of elite tennis became overshadowed by the reigning champion’s unvaccinated status and the highly mediatised legal proceedings this gave rise to.

Before even setting foot on court, Novak Djokovic and his team of lawyers were in court fighting for his right to defend the title and simultaneously claim the record for the most Grand Slams by any individual. But rather than exhibiting his supreme tennis abilities, the nine-times Australian Open champion faced tough questions about his right to enter a country that has imposed some of the strictest coronavirus restrictions in the world.

The world No. 1 has already courted controversy for his resistance to getting vaccinated or adhering to Covid restrictions. This played out extremely unfavourably at the 2020 Adria Tour charity tournament that he organised – an event that was nothing if not bad PR for the star after officials and players (himself included) contracted the virus. His case wasn’t helped by his having been in two countries in the 14 days prior to flying to Australia – despite his paperwork stating that he had not been.

It is fair to say that things could have been handled better on the part of Australian authorities. The moments of indecision about whether Djokovic did or didn’t have medical grounds to enter the country allowed space for his proponents (many aligned with anti-vaccine movements) to make their voices heard. Most notably, when the player’s family had a high profile interview with Nigel Farage – well known for promulgating anti-establishment and often fanatical views – on the right-wing GB News channel.

Indeed, this prime-time appearance demonstrated exactly the issue the authorities took with Djokovic’s refusal to play ball. His visa was eventually cancelled on “good order grounds and on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so” – ie. making an exception for the tennis star would undermine vaccination efforts.

As the question of mandatory vaccines looms ever larger, this will not be the last time it sparks heated debate. It is worth noting that although disappointed with the final verdict, Djokovic fully complied with the decision. Competition organisers will see this debacle as an example not to follow. For those still in the tournament, it’s all to play for.

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