The people of Melbourne, where the unvaccinated Novak Djokovic is currently being detained by Australian immigration authorities, have long had a flair for contestable self-description. Melbourne calls itself “the sporting capital of the world.” Throughout the pandemic, Melburnians have also come to take a martyr’s pride in living in “the world’s most locked-down city,” a label that sits uncomfortably with the regularly repeated claim that theirs is the world’s “most livable” city, too. It’s no great surprise, then, that this city of complications is now playing host to the young year’s first great cultural oddity: a sporting controversy that has managed to unite American anti-vaxxers, Serbian irredentists, and Australian human-rights campaigners in common cause.
It is fitting that Djokovic’s rainbows-and-puppies Instagram post announcing his departure for the Australian Open with a medical exemption has curdled so quickly into outrage and international recrimination. Tennis’s reigning king, gunning at Melbourne Park for a record-setting 21st Grand Slam, is the great troll of world sports — a man who can preach mindfulness, let us in on his deepest yoga secrets, and throw big thrusting hearts out to every corner of a packed center court one week, then smash a ball into a line judge’s throat, scream in a ball kid’s face, hold a superspreader tournament in the middle of a global pandemic, and argue that Kosovo belongs to Serbia the next.
Other players on the men’s ATP Tour have flirted with playing the heel in recent years but none can match the Djoker. Daniil Medvedev has turned his back on crowd confrontation and reinvented himself as a kind of young Gandalf. Tennys Sandgren is reliably demented in his politics but never makes it far enough into the Slams to give them a proper airing. And Stefanos Tsitsipas has opposed mandatory COVID vaccination but is too pretty to be truly hateful. Djokovic began his career impersonating Maria Sharapova and is approaching its end a dead ringer for Travis Bickle, a relentless villain and sporting genius whose strength and success grow in line with the tennis public’s hatred. In this sense he is a perfect protagonist for the times, a stretching embodiment of polarization and perseverance adaptable across all surfaces. Djokovic is the man who, like so much else in the age of online and COVID, just won’t go away.
For now, though, he’s going to court. Australia’s federal court will decide on Monday (Sunday night U.S. Eastern Time) whether local immigration authorities’ decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa hours after his arrival in Melbourne was legal. That decision — along with Djokovic’s detention in an inner-Melbourne hotel prison for asylum-seekers pending the court’s ruling, and the Australian Open’s strategy of allowing unvaccinated players like him to compete at Melbourne Park with medical exemptions in the first place — encapsulates two of the great hallmarks of the modern Australian state: its need to attract international athletes for high-profile sporting events, and its penchant for locking foreigners up in immigration detention.
Djokovic’s incarceration — which, let’s never forget, was always avoidable if only he’d pursued the sensible, easy, and elegant solution of getting vaccinated against COVID-19, as opposed to catching it in December and thereby securing a measure of natural immunity, as his lawyers revealed in court documents this weekend — is the result of a collision between these two motors of Australian society. The Australian Open could have easily insisted that every player be vaccinated, without exception. But the risk of potentially missing out on Novak’s historic 21st Slam was too great, resulting in a political backlash that Djokovic was getting special treatment.
Australia’s need to host major global sporting tournaments is a matter not simply of economic expediency but existential necessity. Never mind that Australia boasts the world’s oldest continuous culture or that in recent years it has gifted humanity, and New York City in particular, treasures of true civilizational significance: flat whites, Sarah Snook, the seasonal, technique-driven all-day café menu. No, Australia can’t love itself unless there’s a Formula 1 race, tennis Grand Slam, or Olympics confirmed on the national calendar. Facing calls from a yet-to-be-vaccinated public to cancel the Australian Open last year, Daniel Andrews, the governor of the tournament’s home state, expressed a fear that struck at the hearts of his sports-loving compatriots: that the world’s tennis authorities might take the Slam away from Australia for good. “If the Australian Open does not happen in Melbourne, it will happen somewhere else,” Andrews said. “It will happen in Japan, it will happen in China, it will happen in Singapore. The real risk then is, it doesn’t come back.”
This is the same fear that now animates all the distressed and overblown talk of the damage to Australia’s global reputation wrought by Djokovic’s detention — a fear that the unvaccinated Sandgren, among others, has exploited, taking to Twitter to declare that Australia “doesn’t deserve to host a Grand Slam.” Craig Tiley, the head of Australian tennis, said that the treatment of unvaxxed but quarantine-exempt players like Djokovic “goes to the heart of the viability of the Australian Open.” Without an annual two-week tournament of rich young Instagrammers running around a court hitting a ball to call its own, what will become of the great southern land?
Australia won’t stop locking asylum seekers up, whatever the answer to that question. The English actor Peter Ustinov once remarked that the real concern about a nation founded as a penal colony is not that so many of its inhabitants are descended from convicts, but from prison officers. Australia’s standing as a “nation of cops” — a regular refrain throughout the pandemic, said to account in part for high compliance rates with the restrictions imposed on the local population to fight the virus — finds its purest expression in its regime of mandatory detention for refugee applicants and those who, like Djokovic, have had their visitor visas canceled. They’re only one side of the story, but the court submissions from Djokovic’s legal team ahead of Monday’s hearing portray the Australian Border Force as singularly petty and incompetent — a picture that many less well-known foreigners with experience of arriving in Australia will be familiar with.
Locking foreigners up is an authentic bipartisan concern in Australia, a moral stain on the country that governments of both the left and the right have merrily enabled, with their determination to “stop the boats” and turn Australia into a fortress safe from the planet’s undesirables. The country’s regime of immigration detention is notoriously harsh and open-ended; there is no legal limit to the time a foreigner in violation of Australia’s border laws can be held captive. Of the 1,459 people currently in onshore immigration detention (a figure that excludes a further 228 held in Nauru and Papua New Guinea under outsourcing deals struck by the Australian government in 2013), over a third have been behind bars for more than two years; 117 have been detained for longer than five years. Djokovic’s new neighbors at Melbourne’s Park Hotel include several of those long-term detainees. If this whole saga achieves nothing else, it will at least have brought global attention to the ludicrous inhumanity of super-wealthy Australia’s attitude to the world’s least fortunate people.
Donald Trump once said that “much can be learned” from Australia’s approach to immigration detention: “You’re worse than I am,” he told then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017, and it’s clear he meant the comment as a compliment. In the U.S., the same build-the-wall conservatives who likely nodded along in approval as Trump endorsed a hardline Australian approach to border control now find themselves decrying the application of that approach to Djokovic. Though Saint Novak may not be an illegal immigrant, his incarceration has pulled Australia into an American Kulturkampf that over the past two years has shifted from concerns about the Great Replacement to hysteria over the Great Inoculation. Fox News host Laura Ingraham called Australia a “COVID police state”; Ted Cruz described the vaccine requirements for entry to Australia “absurd”; Rand Paul asked, “When will the madness end?” In the minds of American conservatives, Australia is now the land of COVID extremism, a cautionary tale and a guiding star for their resistance to efforts here to condition participation in American society on vaccination.
Meanwhile both Djokovic’s family and the Serbian government continue to rage at the tennis star’s ongoing detention. Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, who served as the Yugoslavian minister of Information during the 1999 NATO bombings, said “the whole of Serbia is with him,” while Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, called his son “Spartacus” and hinted darkly at the history of the Serbs, “a proud European people” who have “never attacked anyone but only defended ourselves.” (The dream of a greater Serbia stretching from Banja Luka to Bell’s Beach lives.) Support for Djokovic has also come from more unusual quarters — including from fellow player Nick Kyrgios, arguably tennis’s most renowned Djokovic-hater.
There’s clearly something very unusual going on when Fox News anchors, Australian refugee advocates, the man who once called Djokovic a “tool,” and Slobodan Milosevic’s propaganda minister all find themselves singing from the same hymn sheet. The saga of no-vaxx Novak has become a blank canvas for the projection, across the oceans, of competing agendas, prejudices, fears, and desires. There’s horseshoe theory and then there’s this: a moment when the political horseshoe has been worked so hard it’s become a full-on leg clamp. Should Djokovic survive the maggoty food at the Park Hotel, escape his airless room, triumph before the courts (both legal and Plexicushion), and lift a 21st Grand Slam trophy, the cultural chaos of the COVID era will have produced its most unlikely new lord.