SYDNEY — When tennis star Novak Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday, he stepped off the plane into a different country than the one where he’d won the Australian Open a year earlier.
Amid outrage over the decision to award the unvaccinated athlete a visa, Djokovic found himself detained at the airport and told to go home. The world No. 1 is now reportedly being held at a hotel used to house undocumented immigrants as his lawyers lodge an appeal.
After initially distancing himself from the saga, Prime Minister Scott Morrison seemed to embrace his government’s decision to turn away the tennis player, who he said lacked a medical exemption required of unvaccinated visitors.
“Rules are rules, and there are no special cases,” he told reporters on Thursday, thanking border officers and confirming that Djokovic’s visa had been canceled. “Our government’s strong border protection policies, and particularly in relation to the pandemic, [have ensured] Australia has one of the lowest death rates of covid anywhere in the world.”
Some analysts saw the standoff as an opportunity for Morrison to steer the national conversation away from soaring infections, testing issues and widespread disruptions to family vacations — an overhead smash for a prime minister who has started to look a bit out of form after three years at the top.
But others warned that the backflip — granting Djokovic a visa only to cancel it upon arrival — fed into the narrative of a government prone to missteps, from a bungled vaccine rollout to a diplomatic spat with France to its latest handling of an omicron surge, ahead of what is expected to be a tight electoral contest between Morrison’s conservative coalition and the opposition Labor party.
“The tennis saga in itself is not going to be a vote decider,” said Paul Williams, a political scientist at Griffith University in Brisbane. “But it’s another piece of evidence that Labor can use to say this government is making decisions on the run, it’s inconsistent, it’s incoherent, it’s a shambles.”
The Djokovic debacle is not the first time that allegations of preferential pandemic treatment for famous people have sparked debate in Australia. Hollywood celebrities were allowed in and able to hole up in mansions, even as ordinary Australians trying to return home to see dying relatives faced strict quotas and costly two-week stints in hotel quarantine.
Nor is it the first time that overseas athletes have been scrutinized, with anger over how easily the French rugby team and Indian cricketers were able to visit last year. Djokovic was one of several dozen overseas tennis players allowed in a year ago for the Australian Open, which he won for the third year in a row.
But a lot has changed in the past 12 months, said Steve Georgakis, an expert in the history and sociology of sport at the University of Sydney.
With relatively few cases and a sports-mad populace, Australia carved out exceptions early in the pandemic to keep the games going even as most industries ground to a halt, he said.
“Our sport in many ways continued uninterrupted,” he said. “It’s this great unifier of who we are, it brings people together, and it has brought our nation together.”
But over the past two years, sport’s special treatment has started to grate on people, he said. And with coronavirus cases soaring to record levels — more than 72,000 on Thursday, three times the number a week ago — some sporting events have started to feel less like unifying occasions than concessions to commercial interests at the expense of public health.
“Allowing big business to break the rules is not what Australian sport is all about,” he said.
The other big change is that after a slow start, roughly 94 percent of eligible Australians are vaccinated, leaving little popular sympathy for Djokovic, who has said he opposes vaccination and vaccine mandates.
In a nation of rule-followers, perceived breaches of covid protocol has sometimes sparked public shaming. So when Djokovic announced on Instagram that he had received a travel exemption and was on his way to Australia to defend his Open title, it was no surprise that there was a fierce backlash.
“I don’t care how good a tennis player he is. If he’s refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn’t be allowed in,” tweeted Stephen Parnis, a former vice president of the Australian Medical Association. “If this exemption is true, it sends an appalling message to millions seeking to reduce #COVID19Aus risk to themselves & others. #Vaccination shows respect, Novak.”
That Djokovic was arriving in Melbourne, which has endured more time in lockdown than any other city on earth and seen the most deaths in Australia, added to the outrage.
When Djokovic was detained at the airport for eight hours on Wednesday and ordered to leave the country, some Australians took to social media to mock the athlete, offering to play in his place or inserting him into movie posters about people trapped at airports. One satirical website quipped that Djokovic had instead decided to enter a tournament on Manus Island, where Australia detained asylum seekers.
The initial decision to grant the tennis star a visa “didn’t pass the pub test,” meaning the average Australian wouldn’t agree with it, said Georgakis.
The government “really misunderstood the Djokovic situation,” he said. “They look really silly now.”
While unvaccinated Australians are allowed to return to the country (with two weeks in hotel quarantine), visa holders must be vaccinated or have a medical exemption.
Morrison said Thursday that Djokovic did not have a “valid” medical exemption, suggesting that authorities in Victoria state, where Melbourne is located, and Tennis Australia were responsible for the mix-up.
“All I can say is that the evidence [for] medical exemption that was provided was found to be insufficient,” the prime minister said. But Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley shot back, saying his state wasn’t to blame.
“Someone issued Novak a visa, and it wasn’t the Victorian government,” Foley said.
The federal government is now taking heat from Serbia, Djokovic’s home country, a few months after an embarrassing fallout with France over a canceled submarine deal.
“I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said.
Djokovic is reportedly being held at a Melbourne hotel where detained asylum seekers have complained of maggots, though Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews refused to say where he was on Thursday.
The tennis star’s attorneys on Thursday won a last-minute bid to prevent his deportation, with a judge approving a temporary injunction that allows Djokovic to stay in Australia until at least Monday, when a further hearing will take place.
Djokovic has won the Australian Open nine times, more than any other player, and is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam titles. At the moment, his bid to break that record has been slammed shut.