Break point: Aussie PM takes on Novak Djokovic — and loses

SYDNEY — With the coronavirus ravaging his country, leaving hospitals full and supermarket shelves empty, and an election looming this year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison thought he could score a quick win by deporting tennis superstar Novak Djokovic.

Instead, Morrison got smashed — again.

An Australian judge on Monday ordered the immediate release of the 20-time Grand Slam champion, who had been held in hotel detention since last Thursday, when officials canceled his visa after he arrived in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open without a COVID vaccine.

The Serbian player, a known vaccine-skeptic, had claimed a medical exemption from Australia’s mandatory vaccination rules for inbound travelers on the grounds he had recently recovered from COVID after testing positive on December 16. But though Djokovic said tournament organizer Tennis Australia had told him the exemption had been approved, the Australian Border Force canceled his visa on arrival, citing public health grounds.

While Djokovic may have won the first set, the match isn’t over. Under Australia’s infamously tough border rules, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke may exercise his personal power to cancel the tennis star’s visa if he deems that to be in the public interest — and potentially bar the world’s No. 1 player from reentering the country for the next three years.

Now Morrison, who has spent years crafting a reputation as an immigration hard-liner, is stuck in a no-win situation: back down and allow Djokovic to stay in Australia and play in the tournament (just imagine those post-match press conferences!), or deport the Serb and face accusations he presides over a kangaroo court — and calls for Australia to be stripped of the lucrative Grand Slam, which kicks off this year on January 17.

Insta regrets

Why did Australia pick this fight with Djokovic? Bad optics — and a classic case of wrong place, wrong time.

Melbourne, the home of the Australian Open, has endured one of the world’s longest lockdowns, with residents spending more than 260 days under severe restrictions over the course of the pandemic. At the same time, Australians around the country — and the globe — were separated from their loved ones after the government implemented a COVID plan dubbed “Fortress Australia.”

So Aussies were in no mood for a tone-deaf Instagram post last week in which the “Djoker” wrote: “I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!!”

After an initial smattering of bad headlines and a social media outcry, the center-right Morrison responded to Djokovic’s post by shifting the blame for the decision to allow him into Australia to the center-left government of the state of Victoria.

But as the outrage built, Morrison, a politician with a populist bent and a nose for what plays well in the press, pivoted.

“Mr. Djokovic’s visa has been canceled,” Morrison announced a day later, taking credit for the move. “Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” he added. “No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant.”

Asked by reporters whether Djokovic had been singled out unfairly, given reports other unvaccinated tennis players had been allowed to enter the country before the champ’s detention, Morrison said: “When you get people making public statements, of what they say they have and what they are going to do and what their claims are, they draw significant attention to themselves.”

He added: “Anyone who does that — whether they are a celebrity, a politician, a tennis player, a journalist, whoever does that — they can expect to be asked questions more than others before you. That is how Border Force works. They are not singled out at all.”

Translation: It was the Instagram post.

Advantage, Djokovic

Morrison must have expected a quick win — Djokovic wouldn’t have been the first public figure Australia deported in response to a public outcry, following in the footsteps of far-right British commentator Katie Hopkins, U.S. rapper Tyler, The Creator and American “pick-up artist” Julien Blanc.

But Djokovic lawyered up and returned serve. In Melbourne on Monday, Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly sided with the tennis star, and the Australian government was forced to concede Djokovic hadn’t been given enough time to respond to the notification of its intention to cancel his visa. “We all play by the same rules,” the judge said, in a pointed reference to Morrison’s “rules are rules” line, adding: “Stated in other terms: those rules were not observed.”

Reacting to his win, Djokovic tweeted: “I’m pleased and grateful that the Judge overturned my visa cancellation. Despite all that has happened, I want to stay and try to compete … I remain focused on that. I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans.” He added: “For now I cannot say more but THANK YOU all for standing with me through all this and encouraging me to stay strong.”

Australians will vote in a federal election some time this year, and according to the most recent Newspoll, the prime minister is on track to lose — though the polls predicted the same outcome in the last election, which Morrison ended up winning.

Still, Morrison’s “daggy dad” act is noticeably starting to wear thin. He has been accused of bungling a new “let it rip” COVID policy that’s seen the health system and supply chains buckle under an intense Omicron-driven wave of the pandemic. He’s been branded a liar by French President Emmanuel Macron over his handling of the AUKUS defense pact with the U.S. and U.K.

And now, Morrison’s been aced by Djokovic.

Game, set … match?



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