Imagine if Novak Djokovic got three serves every point to his opponents’ two.
Imagine if he fired a serve into the net, then protested that the net shouldn’t be there for his shots.
Imagine if he shouted during his opponent’s serve, then claimed he had the right to say what he wanted, whenever he wanted to … even in the middle of a point.
Imagine if he lost a set in the Australian Open, then just declared that set didn’t happen.
Anyone with even the slightest understanding of tennis rules, tradition or basic common sense would dismiss all of those complaints without even a moment’s hesitation. But Djokovic is attempting a move exactly like these absurd scenarios, just on a grander scale. He’s willfully charging ahead, unvaccinated, into a country where over 90 percent of adults have been vaccinated, and where everyone has lived under stringent lockdown rules for most of the pandemic … and he’s wondering why he’s not getting a hero’s welcome.
At best, the nine-time Australian Open winner is trying to lawyer his way around the country’s vaccination policies in order to compete for a historic major. At worst, he just doesn’t care. Either way, in tennis terms, he’s trying to smash an overhead on a ball that’s already bounced three times.
Djokovic faces deportation after his visa was revoked for a second time Friday. He had been attempting to enter the country on a medical exemption, his basis for argument being that he had COVID in December and therefore could not be a carrier. Tennis Australia and the state of Victoria accepted that argument, granting a visa allowing Djokovic to play.
But while Djokovic was en route to Melbourne earlier this month, the Australian Border Force canceled that visa, arguing that Djokovic “failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia.” A judge voided that cancellation, based in part on the idea that Djokovic had not been given enough time to respond — the cancellation came down 48 minutes before the deadline Djokovic had been given for response.
Friday, however, Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke once again canceled Djokovic’s visa “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so,” according to a statement. Djokovic’s attorneys are expected to appeal, and both Djokovic’s immediate future and long-term prospects in Australia are at stake. This year’s Australian Open begins Monday, and orders such as Hawke’s typically come with a three-year ban on entry to Australia.
It’s not hard to see why Tennis Australia wanted Djokovic to play. He stands tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 majors, most all time among men. He’s won eight of the 11 Australian Opens since 2011, including the last three in a row. In Australia, he’s beaten Nadal and Andy Murray multiple times, he’s won in straight-set blowouts and five-set marathons. The Australian Open was looking at history unfolding on its own courts.
But this time, Djokovic’s fiercest opponents aren’t his fellow players. He’s staring down the entirety of an Australian government motivated to protect its citizens, and perhaps even more highly motivated to save face in the midst of an international crisis.
Over the course of the pandemic, Australia has had some of the most stringent lockdowns on the entire planet, with curfews in place, travel restricted to three miles from homes, and residents allowed to leave their homes for only two hours a day. Australia was one of the only countries in the world to attempt a zero-COVID strategy, combining strict barriers to entry with extensive contact tracing and quarantining.
The Omicron wave blew through the country regardless, prompting the country to reconsider the use of “the heavy hand of government,” in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s words. Even so, the idea of an unvaccinated international superstar flying into the country for a tournament while residents have suffered under years of restriction drew widespread criticism.
“There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever,” Morrison said earlier this month, adding that if Djokovic didn’t meet with regulatory approval, he’d be on the “next plane home.”
You can argue — and heaven knows Australia and the rest of the world have — whether mandates, masks and lockdowns work to stem the spread of the pandemic. That’s fine. But once the rules are in place, that’s it — abide by them or play elsewhere.
To understand why Djokovic would even attempt to circumvent Australia’s vaccination rules, much less continue to fight after suffering some clear losses, you have to understand what drives him. GOATs aren’t wired like the people who watch them from the stands. You don’t become one of the greatest athletes in history by worrying about the feelings of others.
Djokovic grew up amid bombs and devastation in war-ravaged Belgrade and turned himself into arguably the greatest tennis player in history; you think he’s going to let some bureaucratic regulations stand in his way? His Wednesday Instagram statement expressing regret for elements of the Australia saga had a distinct “fine, here’s an apology, happy now?” feel to it.
The concept of “shared sacrifice” is as foreign to elite, me-first, me-only athletes as winning a Grand Slam event is to the rest of us. Where there’s wiggle room, they’ll find it, whether it’s Djokovic employing lawyers to plead his case to Australian authorities or Aaron Rodgers saying he was “immunized” — not vaccinated, but he sure wanted everyone to think so — in response to a question about his vaccination status. Sacrifice, in their minds, is what the rest of us do so that the winners can keep winning.
At some point, though, even history’s greatest champions run up hard against rules even they can’t break, whether it’s on the court or in the slow, inexorable march of time. Djokovic is at that point now. He took his best shot, and he fell short. He may not be accustomed to feeling this kind of disappointment, but the rest of us have been suffering through it for the last 23 months now.
Djokovic can blame COVID, he can blame faceless bureaucrats, he can blame an unfair universe for not bending to his will. But at some point, he’ll have to focus the blame on himself, too.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]