He may be a fighter who doesn’t know when to throw in the towel, but the moment has come for Novak Djokovic to halt his offensive to play in the Australian Open and end the circus he has helped to create.
Confirmation that Australia’s Immigration Minister Alex Hawke had cancelled the travel visa for the world No.1 has been inevitable for the past few days, after he was successful in his appeal against his visa being revoked by border patrol at Melbourne airport last week.
If Hawke was going to allow the defending Australian Open champion to stay, he would have made that decision at the start of this week, yet he has delayed his call until late on Friday in Australia, limiting the time for Djokovic’s legal team to appeal ahead of the start of the tournament on Monday.
If Djokovic is not in the Australian Open, he will inevitably leave the country and may never return and so this is a moment for all sides to draw breath and bring down the curtain on one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of tennis.
As the debate over this divisive subject has raged in recent days, it has been hard to get away from the reality that Djokovic is attempting to play the game by his own rules at a time when everyone else on the tennis tour has signed up for something different, many doing so reluctantly.
And when you look at the facts as they have been presented to us in the most extraordinary of sporting dramas, Djokovic is asking the world to join him in a plotline that is increasingly hard to believe.
As the world number one played his final match for Serbia at the Davis Cup in Madrid on December 3rd, he was still batting away questions from reporters eager to discover whether he was intending to play at the Australian Open despite a strong suspicion that he was unvaccinated against Covid-19.
“I know what you want,” said an agitated Djokovic when pressed by reporters over whether he would defend his Australian Open title the following month. “I’m not going to give you an answer tonight. I know what you want to ask me, but you will be informed. That’s all I can tell you. I cannot give you any date. Obviously, Australia is around the corner, so you will know very soon.”
What we didn’t know at the time was Djokovic would need a succession of events to fall into place for him to have any hope of entering Australia, where only fully vaccinated visitors are currently allowed through border control.
At that point, Djokovic was hoping to play for Serbia in the ATP Cup in the first week of January, before moving on to defend his Australian Open title and push for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam.
Winning a tenth title in Melbourne would edge him ahead of his great rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the race to finish his career with more major titles than any other man in tennis history, yet there was only one viable route for him to get to Australia after he struck his final ball at the Davis Cup.
As most of the world suspected, vaccine sceptic Djokovic had not followed the path of a vast majority of his tennis rivals by following the guidelines set out by the Australian government that required compulsory vaccines to play in Melbourne.
Even though Tennis Australia had been told repeatedly by the Australian government that previous Covid infection would not be an acceptable reason to avoid the mandatory vaccine requirement for all players in the event, Djokovic was given alternative advice from tennis officials in Melbourne and it opened his door to participate.
The positive Covid test result recorded by Djokovic on December 16th fell at the perfect moment to allow him to complete two weeks of isolation and then submit his application for a medical exemption to enter Australia.
A delay in the process meant Djokovic was forced to pull out of the ATP Cup event, but he flew to Australia last week convinced he had ticked enough boxes to get into the country without any further questions.
What followed became an international incident well beyond sport, as Djokovic was detained in a quarantine hotel, sparking huge protests in his native Serbia as he became a poster boy for the anti-vaxx movement around the globe before he won an appeal to overturn the cancellation of his visa at a Melbourne court last Monday.
That courtroom success may well prove to be the most hollow win of Djokovic’s decorated career, as social media accounts have undermined the timeline that was presented in a bid to get Djokovic inter Australia.
He presented documents to confirm he tested positive for Covid on December 16th, but social media accounts confirm he attended an event to present awards to children the next day and then took part in an interview and photoshoot with French publication L’Equipe a day later.
In a statement on Instagram released in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Djokovic has now confirmed he “felt obliged to go ahead and conduct the L’Equipe interview as I didn’t want to let the journalist down” despite knowing he was Covid positive.
He also admitted his immigration form had been incorrectly filled out by a member of his team, as they neglected to include the fact he had travelled from his home in Serbia to Spain, with social media accounts confirming Djokovic was at the SotoTennis Academy in Cadiz in the first week of January to practice.
What happened next has become a story as big as any tennis has ever witnessed, with one of its iconic stars later confirming he attended a lengthy indoor event with a late group of people while knowing he had Covid-19.
The secrecy around his trip to Spain seemed curious at the time, but it may now be explained as Djokovic needed to fit the timeline around his positive Covid test in order to get into Australia without too many questions being asked.
Djokovic fans will stand by their man whatever he does, yet the reality must be that his version of events in this messy story would not get through a commissioning panel if it was submitted as a script for a TV show on the grounds that the viewers simply wouldn’t believe them.
The pandemic has been a breeding ground for so many conspiracy theorists to weave a tangled web of mistruths and Djokovic now wants us all to believe he was going to miss the Australian Open unless he caught Covid in the two weeks between December 3rd and 16th.
Clearly, Australia’s authorities are struggling to believe Djokovic’s convenient timeline and now an appeal court will decide whether his Melbourne melodrama has a final twist in its already bitter script.
Surely the time has come for all sides to admit this process is doing no good and bring it to an end and while giving up is not in his nature, Djokovic should appreciate that winning this fight may, in fact, damage a legacy that has already been tarnished in brutal fashion over the last few weeks.
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