January 12, 2022 | By Bronwen Largier

Usually, global events like tennis Grand Slam the Australian Open are desired and used by destinations and governments as reputation boosters, which lead to visitor spending and even, further down the line, choosing to move somewhere.

And for tennis stars like Novak Djokovic, their public image drives sponsorship dollars which boost their earnings significantly, over and above whatever they win or lose.

And now we have a situation where it appears poor communication combined with a high profile figure wanting to be exempt from Australia’s pandemic entry requirements has sparked an international incident.

For those not quite up with the latest, top ranked tennis player Djokovic, who has spoken out against vaccine mandates in the past, was granted a vaccination exemption by Tennis Australia and the Victorian Government on account of a recent COVID-19 infection, clearing the way for him to travel to Melbourne for the Australian tennis Grand Slam which starts next week, only to have his visa overturned by the Australian Border Force at the airport upon arriving in Australia. He subsequently took the case to court, where a judge overturned the visa cancellation, primarily because Djokovic was not given a reasonable opportunity for right of reply to his impending visa cancellation.

Everything is made all the more murky because the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, wrote to the head of Tennis Australia, Craig Tiley, in November, specifying that previous infection was not sufficient for players to be granted an exemption. And, on top of that, there are photos and other anecdotal evidence of Djokovic out in public in the days immediately following the positive COVID-19 test result which was the basis for his exemption, putting him in breach of his home country’s rules around isolation for COVID-19 cases. On a public health level, his actions put others in danger of contracting COVID-19 and suffering whatever health outcomes that might follow.

And the whole public debacle is not over yet. Even with the court case ruling, the Federal Immigration Minister, Alex Hawke, can still use his executive power to remove Djokovic from Australia anyway, and bar him from entry for up to three years. That power remains under consideration, while the latest development is centred on whether Djokovic lied on his travel declaration by not disclosing his full travel history in the two weeks prior to arriving in Australia.

I have been putting off writing this piece for days because I keep hoping that it’ll be resolved today, before today becomes tomorrow and then the day after that. Quite aside from putting the story to bed, the longer this whole thing drags on, the worse it is for Australia’s reputation – holding international sporting stars in detention, whether rightfully or not, generally doesn’t do much for our welcoming vibe.

And of course, the issue is, nobody here is completely right. If everyone on the Australian side had followed the rules to the letter, Djokovic would never have been granted an exemption, as he did not fulfill the criteria. And regardless of what he knew about Australia’s vaccination rules, if Djokovic was told multiple times – as he was – that he was cleared to enter the country, why wouldn’t he come? There are millions in prize money at stake.

On the flipside, the world has had an incredibly tough two years due to the pandemic and, this past year, vaccination has been the key to ending lockdowns and restoring some kind of normality where possible. In Australia – and increasingly in other parts of the world – some jobs have vaccination mandates in place for the people who do them. Why should Djokovic be any different? It is also his choice to be a tennis player.

The issue of vaccination is a difficult one, because, of course, people should have freedom of choice as to what they do with their own bodies, but in a pandemic, where being unvaccinated can affect others too – where it can take away their choices and rights, permanently – perhaps the choice to be unvaccinated should not come without consequence. You can’t always have your cake and eat it too. And sometimes it really is a case of life or death.

Whatever happens, there’s some work that’ll need to be done somewhere, somehow, to renew Australia’s true reputation. By and large, I think, or perhaps I hope, we Aussies are community-minded, friendly and willing to give everyone a “fair go”. All we ask is for those who visit us to be the same. And we’ll throw in our laidback sense of humour for free.