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Novak Djokovic’s visa fiasco is a fitting drama for Australia’s summer of discontent

Australia is battling record coronavirus infections just as the country prepares to host the Australian Open tennis tournament. (Mark Baker/AP)
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MELBOURNE, Australia — This was supposed to be Australia’s glorious hot vax summer, with open borders, open businesses and an Australian Open marking a return to normal after two years of the pandemic.

Instead it is a season of discontent Down Under, with a government already under pressure over its handling of a wave of the omicron coronavirus variant now also facing blowback over its treatment of tennis star Novak Djokovic.

A day after an Australian judge ordered Djokovic released from immigration detention, ending a five-day standoff over his eligibility to enter the country, dark clouds still hung over his participation in the tournament, which starts Monday. The government has threatened to again cancel his visa and deport the Serbian athlete, who is hoping to make history with his 21st men’s singles Grand Slam title.

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Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke confirmed Tuesday he was still considering whether to expel Djokovic, and local media reported that officials have launched a new investigation into whether he lied on his border entry forms.

But with soaring coronavirus cases, testing delays, canceled vaccine appointments and supply disruptions depleting grocery shelves, even some Australians angry over Djokovic’s arrival argue the government would be better off focusing its attention elsewhere.

“The shortages are definitely more important than the Australian Open,” said Vincent Roly, 24, as he stood in the near-empty meat aisle of a Melbourne grocery store.

With its strange twists, the sporting scandal has felt like an extension to an up-and-down summer in Australia, where sky-high vaccination rates had raised hopes that the worst of the pandemic was in the past.

But now the country is enduring one of the world’s sharpest spikes in coronavirus infections with more than 90,000 new cases Tuesday — roughly 10 times the tally two weeks ago. Long lines for PCR testing and a shortage of rapid antigen tests mean the true number could be far higher. Hospitals are starting to fill up, and covid-19 deaths are on the rise.

For parts of Australia that had previously escaped the pandemic, now is the first time many people are being confronted with the real possibility of catching the virus. For Melbourne, which has endured more time in lockdown than any other city on Earth and seen the most covid-19 deaths in the nation, however, a much-needed summer vacation has started to feel like a 2021 hangover.

Need a covid test in Australia? Good luck — or try importing one from 8,000 miles away.

Huge numbers of sick or isolating workers have hit supply chains, leaving groceries struggling to fill the shelves. Some supermarkets have restricted the amount of meat Australians can buy to throw on their barbies.

Adding to the unexpected gloom is La Niña, a weather phenomenon that has brought wetter-than-average conditions to eastern Australia.

The Australian Open had hoped to welcome international tourists, only for the omicron variant to scupper the border opening. Then the “Happy Slam,” as it is known, became embroiled in controversy last week when Djokovic was detained at Melbourne Airport.

Djokovic, who is unvaccinated, had been given a medical exemption from the tournament and Victoria state to participate in the Open. But that exemption wasn’t valid for entering the country, federal officials said. Australia requires foreign visitors to be vaccinated or have a valid medical exemption.

The tennis star was kept largely incommunicado overnight at the airport before being transferred to a hotel used to house detained asylum seekers, some of who have complained about the conditions. Djokovic’s family claimed he was being “tortured.” The Serbian president said the athlete was the victim of a “witch hunt.” One Australian columnist called it “a Kafkaesque border shambles.”

Some Australians, especially Serbian immigrants, saw Djokovic’s treatment as symptomatic of the country’s tight coronavirus restrictions.

“People are leaving Australia, especially people who don’t want to get vaccinated,” said Desa Gudelj, 55, as she joined hundreds of other mostly Serbian-born protesters outside the Park Hotel on Sunday night.

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The majority were against him entering the country, polls show, perhaps explaining why Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to lean into the Border Force’s decision to expel Djokovic. Yet even some of the Serbian athlete’s critics came away from Monday’s hearing believing that it was the Australian government that had embarrassed itself.

“I don’t think he should have been allowed to come here in the first place,” said Karla Zulich, a 45-year-old lab worker at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne who was brought in to address virus-related staffing shortages. “However, I do think the way he was treated was incredibly disappointing from our government — it was a massive bungle.”

At the Melbourne Park sports complex, where qualifying matches for the Open were underway, tennis fans were torn over Djokovic’s treatment.

Darren Barnes, whose foster son was serving as a ballboy, said he had to be double-vaccinated for his job at a car dealership. So how could Djokovic get into Australia without a single dose? He and his foster son would isolate on their farm when they got home, just to be safe, he said.

“To me it’s very strange,” the 60-year-old said of the demonstrations in support of Djokovic, one of which turned violent on Monday when fans thought police were detaining the tennis player. “People just got tired of being locked up and now they are using any excuse so they can get out and make a scene.”

But Gary Salt said the saga had left him confused and frustrated with the government.

“I find it ridiculous,” the 36-year-old said on his way to visit a friend at a match. “They told him he couldn’t get in, and then he gets an exemption. Just like they said if we got vaccinated, the number of cases would go down. Now we’re all vaccinated, and cases are going up.”

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“It’s a bit embarrassing for the Australian government,” said Fleur Dowker, 38, of the Djokovic debacle. The pandemic had prevented her from seeing her parents in New Zealand, but she said that with more than 90 percent of eligible Australians fully vaccinated, the country should focus on problems like the food shortages, testing issues, or vaccines for her two boys, ages 10 and 11, not a single tennis player.

“Leave the poor guy alone,” she said. “We’re here to watch tennis, not to get caught up in drama.”

The drama continues, however, with the threat to deport Djokovic hanging over him and the tournament, which has already seen some star players test positive.

Djokovic hasn’t said much about his ordeal since his release, aside from two tweets thanking the judge for his decision and fans for their support. But the photo attached to one tweet spoke volumes. It showed the tennis star on the Australian Open’s main court on Monday night, just hours after his release.

On Tuesday, someone who looked like Djokovic again took to the court for practice, only for the arena’s cameras to suddenly cut away to a screen saver of a snowman skiing around a blank screen.

It was one more odd twist in an Australian summer already full of them.