By Giri Nathan
Listen: I find it as sad as you do that tennis has become some grim crucible for debate about every vexed social issue. If you want to rip millennials for being mentally soft, discuss the nefariousness of the Chinese Communist Party, or complain about vaccine mandates, there’s a tennis story line ripe for you to dig into. And in this new year, there’s already another grim reason for tennis to dominate headlines. This latest Novak Djokovic saga has taken on the shape and mood of a missing Kafka manuscript—detention, confusion over rules, bureaucrats contradicting each other, wailing kin. There’s no denying the initial, warm wave of schadenfreude about a misinformation-spewing anti-vaxxer getting bounced from his pursuit of a historic title because he couldn’t figure out how to dodge a vaccination mandate. But once that subsides, you wade into the morass of Australian governance, which has embarrassed itself pretty badly here too. With each new layer of reporting, I can’t decide on which is the most surreal of the following details:
The time frame. On Tuesday, Djokovic triumphantly announced that he’d gotten a medical exemption that would let him play in the Australian Open, then spent all of Wednesday on a plane to Melbourne, and spent Thursday in a 10-hour face-off with government officials who denied his visa. It took a legal challenge for him to fend off deportation until Monday.
The baffling conflicting opinions among Australia’s tennis, state, and federal agencies on the subject of his exemption. It’s the dysfunction here that almost makes you feel bad for the guy. Whatever the exemption Djokovic sought—it’s been suggested it was for people who contracted COVID-19 in the past six months—he flew out to Australia because two separate medical panels approved it: one convened by Tennis Australia, which runs the Open, and another by the health department of Victoria, the state where the Open is played. And then, on his arrival, the federal government came to a different conclusion about the validity of that exemption.
The scene in front of the Park Hotel on Thursday, where Djokovic is thought to be staying as he fights to stay in Australia. Outside the hotel, supporters wrapped themselves in Serbian flags and kept a candlelight vigil for their man. There, they mingled with another, vastly more sympathetic group of activists, who were speaking out on behalf of the dozens of asylum-seekers and refugees who have been detained in the same hotel, some for years. Conditions for the detainees have been criticized on grounds of inedible food, fire, and COVID-19 outbreak.
The president of Serbia going to bat for Djokovic, hoping to get him moved out of “that infamous hotel,” and promising him the support of an entire nation: “I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately.”
Okay, the most surreal details are the astonishing quotes given by Novak’s father, Srdjan Djokovic, over the past few days, as he asserted a conspiracy against Serbs, Serbia, and his son specifically. “They can incarcerate him tonight, shackle him tomorrow, but truth is like water, as it always finds its way. Novak is the Spartacus of the new world that doesn’t tolerate injustice, colonialism and hypocrisy,” he told the Serbian newspaper Telegraf. He would later raise the stakes of his comparison in a Belgrade press conference with his wife and other son: “They nailed Jesus to the cross and did all sorts of things to him. And he still lives among us. In the same way they are also trying to crucify Novak. To underestimate him, to bring him to his knees.” Not sure anyone in this whole weird story will manage to out-weird this man.
Above: Scenes from Novak’s government detention center/hotel in Melbourne. (Getty)