Novak Djokovic has fallen victim to the latest harsh application of border policies by an Australian government, but he still only has himself to blame.
On Friday the Morrison government’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, took the momentous decision to again cancel the world No 1’s visa, which is very likely to trigger deportation despite Djokovic’s win in court on Monday.
Now Djokovic’s only hope would be a second Hail Mary court case, made all the harder by the godlike powers given to the minister in Australian law and a slower, steadier process of decision that has consumed the whole week.
When Djokovic landed in Melbourne late on the evening of 5 January, he thought a visa and a medical exemption approved by Tennis Australia’s chief medical officer and an independent Victorian government board would guarantee him a shot at his 10th Australian Open and record 21st grand slam.
But his fate was sealed by a hardening view in the Australian government and its Border Force that a recent Covid diagnosis was itself not enough to enter the country quarantine-free, and an error on his immigration paperwork that took days to come to light.
Djokovic challenged his visa cancellation in the federal circuit court, winning because the judge agreed it had been unreasonable of the Border Force to renege on a deal to give him more time to address the exemption issue.
First set Djokovic. He took to Melbourne Park, ensuring familiar images of him on Rod Laver Arena’s Avatar-blue court that seemed to promise another shot at grand slam greatness.
Even public opinion – so long set against Djokovic for his refusal to be vaccinated to play a tournament in one of the world’s most locked down cities during the pandemic – seemed to swing back his way.
Transcripts of his interview with Border Force, released in court documents, painted the picture of a weary traveller who stayed cool and calm despite being genuinely bewildered as he thought he’d done everything right.
Or as judge Anthony Kelly put it: what more could this man have done?
Accepting the loss on procedural grounds, the government’s lawyer warned the minister was still considering the nuclear option of re-cancelling his visa.
Technically, the old ground of possible risk to public health was enough to do so, although it could be construed as a churlish response demonstrating the government was always out to get Djokovic.
But momentum swung against Djokovic when it was noted that his presence in Belgrade for Christmas suggested a declaration he hadn’t travelled in the fortnight before his flight to Australia from Spain was wrong, to say nothing of his public appearances in the days after his positive test on 16 December.
Djokovic’s Wednesday statement conceded error in his paperwork, blamed an agent who had filled it out, and acknowledged an “error of judgment” attending an interview and photo shoot after he received his result.
That statement sealed his fate, giving new impetus to cancel his visa and further harming his public image for exposing others to Covid back in Serbia.
The politics of this decision will be mixed. Some will think it an overreaction for a government trying to normalise the inevitability of endemic Covid cases and Serbian-Australians will be furious.
But time and time again Australian governments have been rewarded for keeping people out and the prime minister’s “rules are rules” refrain last week showed this is where the Coalition thinks the balance of public opinion lies.
Yes, the decision is harsh, as most travellers’ declarations are not subjected to this level of scrutiny. Yes, it will have an enormous impact on Djokovic and his quest to be recognised as the greatest male singles player of all time.
But still, the judge’s question can now be answered easily enough. What more could Djokovic have done?
Get vaccinated; isolate while awaiting the result of a PCR test instead of doing an event with children (even if, as Djokovic claims, he felt fine and rapid antigen tests came back negative); stay in isolation after being notified of a positive result instead of doing an interview and photo shoot; and answer the form correctly.
While it seems bizarre that the minuscule risk of one unvaccinated man entering a country overrun by Omicron could justify deportation, harshness – and even cruelty – are the hallmarks and organising principles of Australia’s border policies.
The decision was Hawke’s to make, but it’s worth noting Morrison proudly displays an “I Stopped These” trophy of a boat in his office, and once complained the relatives of deceased asylum seekers received taxpayer-funded flights to attend their funerals.
Donald Trump remarked to another Liberal prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, “you are worse than I am”, intending it as a compliment on Australia’s refugee policies.
A system that crushes the hopes and dreams of refugees and asylum seekers who did nothing except seek safety in Australia was always going to be able to find a way to crush those of a man who has hit plenty of unforced errors.