MELBOURNE, Australia – In a surreal moment of all or nothing at all, there were two potential forks in Novak Djokovic’s tennis road at about 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon in Melbourne.
He either was going to headline a night session of world No. 1s on Rod Laver Arena, as the 2022 Australian Open kicked off.
Or the nine-time champion would be making arrangements to leave the country after being deported.
The latter turned out to be the road he had no choice but to take, after a second appeal of his visa revocation – this one to a three-judge bench at the Federal court, by unanimous decision – was unsuccessful.
There were no more realistic avenues remaining by which Djokovic, who was in trouble with the Australian Border Force even as he was in the air from Dubai to Melbourne, could defend his title.
And so, he’s going home.
No doubt we will hear more from Djokovic once he has time to process the last 11 days of his life. He said he would be taking some time to “rest and recuperate”.
But for moment, he issued this statement.
“I am extremely disappointed with the Court ruling to dismiss my application for judicial review of the Minister’s decision to cancel my visa, which means I cannot stay in Australia and participate in the Australian Open.
“I respect the Court’s ruling and I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country.
“I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love. I would like to wish the players, tournament officials, staff, volunteers and fans all the best for the tournament.
“Finally, I would like to thank my family, friends, team, supporters, fans and my fellow Serbians for your continued support. You have all been a great source of strength to me.”
Djokovic is reported to be headed out of Australia on a 10:30 p.m. night flight via Dubai.
Delayed OOP still out too soon
The immediate consequences of the timing of all this is that the top half of the men’s singles draw is now completely out of whack.
Had the decision come down before Monday’s order of play came out – and even at that, it was delayed until 4 p.m. Sunday in a major lack of respect to the other 127 singles players participating who wanted to prepare – everything would have changed.
No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev would have moved to the top spot in the draw in place of Djokovic, with a few other seeds moved around to try to keep the competitive integrity of the 128-player draw as intact as possible.
But as it was, the schedule came out just after 4 p.m., with Djokovic on the schedule.
It meant that the re-balancing of the draw could not occur. And that if he ended up not playing, a lucky loser would end up taking the top spot in the draw.
All eyes now on Salvatore Caruso, who was the … No. 29 seed in the qualifying. Not even a top seed; barely seeded.
The blame game will begin
There are still far more questions than answers about this whole fiasco, which sucked every iota of oxygen out of the Melbourne Park site for a week and a half.
And it’s notable that Tennis Australia has been loudly silent on this issue all along. Sunday evening, more than two hours after the final verdict, they issued a … rather bare-bones statement.
Here are a few of those questions:
*Who told Djokovic that he had the green light to make his plans to come to Australia? You don’t just hop on a long flight like that, with a three-man team, and hope you’ll somehow try to game the system when you arrive.
*Why was the extremely firm deadline of Dec. 10 for unvaccinated players or others to submit their documentation in the hopes of getting the medical exemption from the state of Victoria to at least access the tournament site and compete suddenly … not so extremely firm?
Djokovic reports he tested positive for COVID (for a second time) on Dec. 16, nearly a week past that firm deadline. Earlier on in the fall, when no exceptions appeared to be in the offing at all – and even earlier in the month – he had to think his chances of competing were slim. And then, suddenly, they weren’t.
*Why were the instructions to the players about the various procedures needed to get in – especially to unvaccinated players – skewed so heavily towards the Victorian medical exemption, with just one sentence devoted to the actual criteria needed to enter the country through the auspices of the border force (which is a national responsibility)?
*In the battle of leaked correspondance that was a feature of the first week of this drama, there were two different letters advising Tennis Australia that a previous case of COVID was not a contraindication for vaccine. And therefore wouldn’t qualify a visiting person to enter Australia without going through the 14-day hotel quarantine.
*Why did the tournament’s head of biosecurity resign, just a few weeks before the start of the event – when his job was crucial to the success of the tournament?
And that’s just for starters.
Would it be a shock to see Djokovic lay a big ol’, fat lawsuit on Tennis Australia, after all this? Not especially.
The ripple effect of all this will be heard for awhile.
It has been clear all along that while the ultimate buck stops with the Serb, there is enough blame in this one to go around to a number of other parties.
(Even if, obviously, had he opted to get vaccinated as the vast majority of his fellow players have, none of it would have happened).
(And, had the tournament not gone back on its vow to allow no unvaccinated exceptions to complete, none of it would have happened).
What’s next? More battles
As Djokovic heads home to try to put this all behind him, the reality is that it will be just the first of many battles he will have to wage, if he wants to continue plying his trade and making tennis history while still refusing to be vaccinated (as 97 per cent of his top-100 ATP brethren have now reportedly done).
The current rules for travellers into the United States, for example, do not list a recent case of the coronavirus as a possible reason for a vaccination exemption. He’d likely have to knock on President Joe Biden’s door personally to request a special pass. And even then – especially after all this drama – even that probably wouldn’t work.
That means that Indian Wells and Miami, which take up the calendar for the full month of March, are a dodgy prospect at the moment.
As well, the No. 1 ranking spot is suddenly up for grabs.
Already, in the next few weeks, Djokovic is going to drop the 2,000 points from his Australian Open win last year. He has won Indian Wells five times, and Miami six times. And those tournaments are worth 1,000 ranking points each to win.
Little public support from peers
Remarkably few fellow players stood up for Djokovic in the public arena, although no doubt there were some who reached out to him privately.
There was zero to be gained from players still in Australia to do that; they would feel the wrath of the crowd as Djokovic would have, had he played. They are NOT joking around here in Melbourne about the virus.
I know too little to judge the situation.— Alize Cornet (@alizecornet) January 16, 2022
What I know is that Novak is always the first one to stand for the players. But none of us stood for him.
Be strong @DjokerNole
After keeping it mostly at bay for more than a year, when the rest of us were dealing with it, they now find themselves in the throes of a full-blown outbreak. And this time, with the highly contagious omicron variant. They are, in a nutshell, having a collective cow.
As things go, it’s not crazy to expect many other countries to pose similar challenges.
When is it “cutting the losses” time?
And so the problem Djokovic finds himself dealing with is this: his stubbornness, will to win and hubris are part of what got him to the top of the tennis pyramid and in position to make tennis history.
But the downside of those qualities are that in a case like this, they only hurt him.
Has he come too far down this road not to sit down, look at it realistically, realize that his brand is already battered a bit and his tennis legacy very much threatened?
Or will he continue to fight this fight?
It’s one that will be pretty impossible to win. “Sticking to one’s principles” is a fabulous notion if you can afford it. But while Djokovic can easily afford never to play tennis again, he’s chasing something no one else has ever done. And that is priceless.