I was born into a tennis mad family. Each time my father was appointed to a new school, the first job of the P&C was to build a tennis court. So when he was the headmaster of Burrinjuck in the 1930s, the task was easy. The parents working on damming the mighty Murrumbidgee River brought their heavy work equipment up on the weekend and carved the tennis court out of the side of a steep hill.
In the 1950s, every boxing day, my family would eagerly gather around the radio to listen to the Davis Cup matches where Australia would usually beat the US. Australia then was the undisputed champion of world tennis.
So, when the four grand slams began in 1968, distant Australia scored a place. Since then, we have slipped a long way down the tennis ladder, but the Australian Open (AO) is still the place to be for the world's best tennis players. Apart from the Australian summer, what is particularly enticing is that Melbourne Park has the best tennis facilities globally.
Every January, for the past 30 years, I have gone to Melbourne to watch the Australian Open. The only exceptions have been the COVID years. The pandemic has created strict rules around attendance at this tennis tournament. So before my 2022 trip was cancelled for family reasons, I made sure I was triple vaccinated.
It is hard to believe that world number one Novak Djokovic didn't do the same, given what's at stake. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have each won 20 grand slam titles. The AO in 2022 was Djokovic's chance to become the best ever tennis player in the world. So why did he risk that and a lot of prize money by trying to skip around Australia's strict vaccination rules for entering the country? Djokovic is anti-vax.
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Tennis Australia and the Victorian authorities, who ignored clear advice from the federal government on what was required, have been somewhat complicit in this melodrama. Although Djokovic won round one in the federal court, that was never the end of the matter, given the federal Minister for Immigration's discretionary power over every arrival in Australia.
The workload and responsibilities of the immigration portfolio are enormous. The minister often has discretion over life and death matters, as they decide who can come into Australia. After considering all the evidence, the current minister, Alex Hawke, decided that Djokovic could not stay in Australia to play in the AO on "health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so". On appeal, the full bench of the Federal Court unanimously supported the minister's decision.
When influential people fall, it's usually the little things that get them in the end. In Djokovic's case, a travel declaration was incorrectly filled out. Also, he was not entirely truthful about recent movements across national borders and could not prove that his claimed vaccination status met the rigorous Australian standard.
There is also an underlying political agenda in play. The government seemed fearful that Djokovic's continued presence may stir up the anti-vax voters who may increasingly shift to extreme right-wing parties at the looming federal election.
There is also an underlying political agenda in play.
For most Australians who have done the right thing and had their jabs, the government removing Djokovic, the COVID rule breaker, should help to consolidate their support at the election. A weekend poll reported 70 per cent of respondents agreed that Djokovic should be deported.
Djokovic's attempt to enter Australia unvaccinated has happened in the nation's deadliest COVID week since the start of the pandemic. Not a good week for a top athlete to try to dodge Section 189 (1) of the Australian Migration Act.
Also high on the government's election agenda is national security. One of the reasons centre-right parties keep winning federal elections is that the electorate sees them as stronger on issues such as border security. The Djokovic case has highlighted this issue. It sends a clear message that this government will continue to turn back people who try to enter Australia illegally.
If Djokovic had understood this before leaving Serbia, he would have realised that he had little chance of playing in the 2022 Australian Open, with questionable vaccination status. An immediate return flight was Djokovic's first instinctive response following his long interrogation by Australian Border Force on arrival in Australia. He should have followed his gut. It certainly would have saved widespread embarrassment.
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