Novak Djokovic’s application for a COVID-vaccine exemption in order to play at the Australian Open was, from the start and in its essence, a cynic’s ploy. As recently as a month ago, he was uninfected with the coronavirus and unyielding in his conviction (as he still is) that he does not want a COVID vaccine to enter his body. Being healthy but unvaccinated, as he was until mid-December, meant he could not, without a lengthy quarantine, have entered Australia under its strict pandemic travel restrictions. That meant no tennis for him at an event he has dominated for years, which, in turn, could be understood to mean that his personal anti-vax convictions are so strong that he was willing to forgo what is arguably his best opportunity to win his twenty-first major—one more than anyone in the men’s game has ever won. It would be interesting to know what he was thinking at that point: what it felt like to be the greatest player of his era passing up the chance at an all-time record—the record in his sport—because he held a view, held it firmly. But then something fortuitous happened: he got COVID. Who in the world could be in a position where contracting the coronavirus would present an opportunity, a loophole?
Early last week, Djokovic indicated, with exclamation points and emojis, that he had been granted a vaccine exemption—this was confirmed shortly afterward by Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open—and would be headed to Melbourne after all. He didn’t say why, and he had a right to his medical privacy, of course, but people naturally speculated about why he was entitled to an exemption: a rare underlying malady, say, or an adverse reaction to an ingredient in the vaccine. If either of these had been the case, he would have been spared—along with Australia and everyone else—the sad debacle that began to unfold the minute he landed at Melbourne’s airport.
Djokovic, who is thirty-four, grew up in Serbia, where almost all children are routinely immunized. (The one exception are Roma children in impoverished Belgrade shantytowns.) More than eight million doses of the COVID vaccine have been administered in Serbia, and the government has provided cash incentives and vouchers to encourage the wary. Serbia, then, which Djokovic represents as a player, and where he spends much of his time when he is not on the tennis circuit, is a place whose health officials are eager to see their fellow-citizens immunized to protect themselves and those they live and work among. They’ve drawn their conclusions about the SARS-CoV-2 virus from virology and immunology. They believe and trust the science.
But Belgrade, the city where Djokovic grew up, is home to a spirited alternative-medicine scene, a seventies-Big-Sur underground of biofeedback, radiesthesia, and healing. Djokovic has for some time vibed with its holistic Weltanschauung. There was his encounter with Dr. Igor Cetojevic, a Bosnian Serb, who, while watching Djokovic on TV during the 2010 Australian Open, became convinced that the player’s need for medical time-outs had nothing to do with asthma, as some thought, but with too much gluten in his diet. Not long after, Cetojevic met Djokovic in Croatia, during the Davis Cup, where he asked Djokovic to raise his right arm twice, once while holding, in his left hand, a slice of bread to his belly; the exercise convinced Djokovic that his muscles were weaker when proximate to wheat. There was also, in 2016, his hiring of Pepe Imaz, a Spanish coach who evangelized about the transformative power of long hugs. More recently, there was Djokovic’s friendship with the wellness entrepreneur Chervin Jafarieh, who talks of having lived in jungles and among shamans, sells supplements and elixirs, and, in May of 2020, listened approvingly during an Instagram Live conversation as Djokovic explained that polluted water can be purified by human consciousness, because water molecules “react to our emotions, to what is being said.”
By then, Djokovic had already expressed his resistance to being vaccinated against the coronavirus. He knew that COVID was killing people and overwhelming medical facilities; in the first weeks of the outbreak in Serbia, he and his wife donated one million euros for the purchase of respirators and other medical equipment. Medical professionals around the world were awaiting the results of vaccine trials. But he, like many anti-vaxxers, was doing his own research. He expressed doubts that a vaccine could fend off a virus prone to mutations. (A vaccine could, it turned out.) He had more faith in dietary and behavioral practices: healthy foods, yoga, meditation. “I am curious about well-being and how we can empower our metabolism to be in the best shape to defend against impostors like COVID-19,” he said, in April of 2020.
That June, Djokovic tested positive for the coronavirus after taking part in a series of exhibition matches that he’d organized in Serbia and Croatia, which had no social-distancing measures; he was forced to suspend the series when other players, too, came down with COVID. He had mild symptoms, and his stance against getting vaccinated did not waver. Djokovic had faith in wellness. His objections to receiving a COVID vaccination were, it seemed, spiritual ones, matters of belief.
Australia did away with religious exemptions to vaccinations in 2015. That was a path closed to Djokovic as he prepared to travel to Melbourne for the Australian Open, an event he has won nine times. Australia has imposed some of the toughest COVID-related travel restrictions in the world; it does not readily welcome the unvaccinated. This was not a problem for men’s tennis over-all, as nearly all the top players on the men’s tour are said to be vaccinated. It was a problem for Djokovic—and perhaps for the Australian Open and its broadcast partners, with two of its biggest stars, Roger Federer (recovering from knee surgery) and Serena Williams (at “the advice of my medical team,” she said) having announced that they would not attend. Djokovic did have the option, as an unvaccinated traveller, of entering a fourteen-day quarantine upon arrival in Australia, but it is unclear whether that was ever discussed. Neither Tennis Australia nor the state of Victoria, wherein Melbourne lies, said much at all about the exemption before Djokovic’s plane touched down in Melbourne last Wednesday night.
Many Australians, who have faced long and harsh lockdowns, reacted to the news of the exemption with skepticism, even anger, judging by news accounts and social media. (There followed pro-Djokovic demonstrations, with many participants of Serbian heritage.) It wasn’t until after Djokovic had arrived in Melbourne that the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that he’d been granted an exemption because he had recently contracted COVID, which is said to provide, for a limited time, some “natural” immunity and lessen the risk to others.
By the time the world learned that Djokovic had suffered a second bout of the coronavirus, his struggle to stay and play tennis in Melbourne had devolved into a dismally confusing and polarizing fiasco. Australia’s current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, whose conservative coalition is behind in opinion polls as it faces federal elections this year, declared that he would defend his nation’s borders—a rouser with Australia’s populist right—and tolerate no exceptional privileges for an international star. (Morrison said that “if he’s not vaccinated, he must provide acceptable proof that he cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. . . . If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home—there should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic.”) Djokovic was sent and confined to a hundred-and-nine-dollar-a-night hotel room after hours of questioning at Melbourne’s airport by the Australian Border Force; at the hotel, amid forsaken refugees and asylum seekers, he reportedly requested a personal chef. Meanwhile, Australian federal officials, Victoria state officials, and Australian Open officials bickered as to what constituted a COVID exemption and whether Djokovic qualified for one. Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, compared his son’s ongoing confinement in the Melbourne hotel first to NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, then to Christ’s Crucifixion. Djokovic, wearing no face covering, was photographed attending an indoor event to commemorate the introduction of his own Serbian postage stamps on the day he had tested positive for COVID, according to documents providing the basis for his exemption. At a press conference in Belgrade, Djokovic’s parents and brother were asked about him attending another public event, unmasked, after testing positive for COVID—this one an award ceremony for young Serbian tennis players. Instead of answering, they adjourned the press conference.
On Monday, at a virtual hearing that was designed to be open to the media and the public (it was hacked, sending reporters to pornographic images instead), a federal judge ruled that Djokovic had been treated unfairly after arriving at Melbourne’s airport; Djokovic’s visa was restored and he was freed from custody. During the proceedings, government lawyers warned that his visa could still be cancelled by the country’s immigration minister, which, by law, could lead to a ban from Australia for three years. On Tuesday, there was a flurry of interest in whether Djokovic had knowingly made unmasked public appearances after testing positive for COVID; whether he had, in fact, travelled, in the days before flying to Melbourne (his documents said he hadn’t, although he had, and Djokovic later released a statement on Instagram saying that the incongruity resulted from “human error” when his support team filled out his travel declaration and was “not deliberate.”); and in the precise timing of his tests and test results as reflected in documents he submitted. (In his statement, Djokovic said that he did not receive a positive COVID-19 test result until the award ceremony for young players had concluded. He did acknowledge that he knew that he had COVID at a photoshoot for the sports newspaper L’Équipe.) It no longer seemed far-fetched that the Australian government would order that Djokovic be sent home. Would this latest installment of Novak Agonistes ever end?
Whether or not Djokovic takes the court at the Australian Open next week, there remain questions that only he can answer. Does he have any idea how he contracted the virus a second time? Has he informed the people whom he came into contact with when he was possibly already contagious? Would he be willing to quarantine for ten days in England, as unvaccinated travellers are, at this time, required to do, in order to play at Wimbledon this summer? The United States currently requires those arriving by plane to be fully vaccinated—what if that is still true at the end of the summer, when the U.S. Open is held? And—during those four days in Melbourne, when he was confined to his desolate hotel room, awaiting his fate—did it ever cross his mind that this whole mess would have never occurred had he simply got himself vaccinated?
This content was originally published here.