Serbia: Australia’s treating our star tennis player like a terrorist

Did Novak Djokovic flout Australia’s draconian COVID-19 protocols by attempting to compete at the Australian Open? Or has the government in Canberra imprisoned the world’s top-ranked tennis player like a “terrorist” after first luring Djokovic to the Land Down Under? Djokovic’s detention has touched off a diplomatic row that could call into question whether Australia can host any international events under its current rigid COVID-19 rules:

Australia on Friday rejected claims from Djokovic’s family that the player was being held prisoner ahead of a court hearing Monday that will determine whether he is allowed to remain in the country and play in the Australian Open. The world No. 1 had his visa canceled on arrival in Melbourne on Wednesday after authorities rejected his request for an exemption from Australia’s requirement that visitors be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Rather than leave the country, he lodged an appeal and is being held at a hotel for undocumented immigrants until the hearing can take place.

There were also reports in local media on Friday that another tennis player, 38-year-old Czech Renata Voracova, was also detained and sent to the same quarantine hotel after entering the tournament on a similar vaccine exemption. Reuters later reported that the Czech Foreign Ministry confirmed her detention.

Apparently, Australia would have allowed Djokovic to leave if he had chosen to do so. He wanted to compete and filed an appeal, but the decision to force him into confinement with “undocumented immigrants” and similar appellants has touched off this row. Why not just let Djokovic make his own arrangements for quarantine? It’s not as if he doesn’t have the resources to pay for his own housing while the government considers his appeal.

The Serbian government is livid, and accuses Canberra of having “lured” Djokovic there to promote its tennis tournament, and now treating him like a criminal or worse:

“Novak Djokovic is not a criminal, terrorist nor illegal immigrant, but he has been treated as such by the Australian authorities, which understandably triggers the indignation of his supporters and Serbian citizens,” Serbia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry’s state secretary, Nemanja Starovic, spoke to the Australian ambassador to demand that Djokovic be transferred to “adequate accommodation for a sportsman of his caliber” while awaiting the court decision, according to the statement.

Why did Djokovic try to enter in the first place? It appears to have been a misunderstanding on Djokovic’s part. In an Instagram message to his fans prior to his arrival, Djokovic claimed he had gotten a medical exemption before traveling to Australia. And he did, but that was controversial at the time, too:

Novak Djokovic used two exclamation points and an emoji of a flexed biceps Tuesday in announcing that he had been granted an exemption from coronavirus vaccination, enabling him to defend his Australian Open title.

But it’s unclear whether the perennially sunny fans at Melbourne Park, host of the season’s first Grand Slam, will share Djokovic’s enthusiasm, given the strict protocols that all Australians have been subject to during the pandemic. …

Tournament officials followed with a statement confirming the news and expanding on the process, saying the decision was approved by independent experts. The government of the state of Victoria, in which Melbourne is located, had mandated that all players, staff and fans at the Australian Open be fully vaccinated unless a legitimate reason for an exemption exists.

“Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts,” tournament organizers said in a statement. “One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health.”

At the time, there was some grumbling about getting the exemption on the basis of his international rank. It also contradicted an earlier declaration from the provincial government in Victoria that no exemptions would be granted at all. The reversal for Djokovic and a handful of other tennis players didn’t make premier Daniel Andrews popular among his constituents:

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews was the target of much criticism. One Twitter user asked whether he could “swing an exemption for all the unvaccinated teachers, police officers, nurses…” Earlier this week, Victoria reported 8,577 new coronavirus cases, passing the previous peak of 7,442 on Jan. 1.

Oliver Brown, chief sportswriter for Britain’s Telegraph, argued that the decision showed Australia’s hard-line covid-19 protocols didn’t apply to the rich and famous and predicted widespread resentment toward Djokovic as a result.

“When you have had ‘the rules’ drummed into you ad nauseam by an overzealous state premier, you will hardly relish the prospect of a multimillionaire tennis player running roughshod over the same procedures,” Brown wrote.

If Djokovic got an exemption, however, why is he being detained? Apparently, Djokovic got an exemption from the venue and the provincial government, but not Australia’s national government. The latter still wants to enforce its border protocols, which has essentially trapped Djokovic between layers of government. One can understand why the Serbian government is accusing Australia of having “lured” their citizen into a trap.

Still, it’s Australia’s country and their rules, even as unreasonable as those might be. Djokovic and the tennis league had the resources to navigate the requirements properly and bungled it. If Australia wants to pursue “zero COVID” strategies, that’s their call, but they should ask themselves how long they plan to cut themselves off from the rest of the world to succeed at it. The COVID-19 virus is now assuredly endemic, which means that Australia can either start figuring out how to live with it and engage with the rest of the world, or it can sit as an island fortress where no one can enter and no one can leave. They don’t need to bend the rules for Novak Djokovic, but they should rethink those rules for their own sake.

Addendum: And at the same time, Djokovic should get vaccinated, especially given his need to travel. Come on, man.

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