The Australian Open can get along perfectly well without Novak Djokovic, said the 20-time major champion Rafael Nadal, on a day when the world’s leading players bemoaned the distractions caused by Djokovic’s immigration battle.
“I tell you one thing,” said Nadal, with a stern glare. “It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event, no?
As the saga moved into its 12th day, the mood in Melbourne Park was mutinous. Australian No1 Alex De Minaur suggested that “this whole situation has taken a lot of spotlight away from us competitors”, while the former Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza said “It’s taking long. We all want to move on, and focus on the cool aspect of starting a slam.”
The 19-year-old British starlet Emma Raducanu also entered the debate, saying “I feel like the situation has taken away a little bit from the great tennis that’s been happening over this summer in Australia. For example, Andy Murray, he’s in the final tonight, which I think is pretty incredible.”
But Olympic champion Alexander Zverev – a long-time ally of Djokovic – swam against the current, suggesting that the treatment meted out by the authorities had been unfair. “The Australian government and the Victorian government should have been clear on what is going to happen beforehand,” Zverev said. “I think it’s not very fair for a person to come here and not be able to play.”
The balance of views on show at Melbourne Park was typical of the wider debate. While Djokovic can still count on isolated voices of support, his stubborn insistence on his right to play has not played well with the Australian public, nor the vast majority of players – somewhere above 95 per cent – who have been vaccinated.
In his pre-tournament press conference, Nadal stressed that vaccinations are the solution to the problem of Covid, adding that tennis will suffer if crowd numbers do not pick up this year. He was also asked what impact this controversy was likely to have on Djokovic’s image, and offered a nuanced answer.
“From my point of view, is lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Nadal. “About his image? I mean, everyone choose his road. I really respect him, even if I am not agreeing with a lot of things that he did the last couple of weeks.”
Meanwhile, no more than a kilometre away in Melbourne’s city centre, a large vehicle was leaving Djokovic’s lawyers’ offices under police guard. The man himself was soon reported to have returned to the Park Hotel, the glorified detention centre which houses refugees and asylum seekers. It is also notorious for serving maggots in its food.
The legal debates continued throughout Saturday morning and will resume on Sunday, with Djokovic’s fate once again to decided by Judge Anthony Kelly. A 268-page document was published online for open access, featuring both sides’ submissions, and revealed some interesting details about the arguments in play.
In the government’s submission, immigration minister Alex Hawke said that he had accepted Djokovic’s medical arguments about his failure to undergo vaccination – namely, that a recent bout of Covid had rendered a jab unnecessary – and also had no issues with the administrative error (a failure to mention recent travel to Belgrade) on his immigration paperwork.
Instead, Hawke argued that “Mr Djokovic’s presence in Australia may pose a health risk to the Australian community” as a focus for anti-vaccination sentiment.
In response, Djokovic’s lawyers made a variety of arguments, including that Australian sentiment was behind him (a claim made on the basis of an online newspaper poll). They also suggested that cancelling Djokovic’s visa could “jeopardise the viability” of Australia continuing to host the Australian Open.