Friday, October 7

Novak Djokovic v Australia is a grudge match for our polarized era | Novak Djokovic

They first came for the billionaire tennis players with rim-shaped photos of infractions on their Instagram page. And I didn’t speak.

Actually, no, it’s not exactly that. The decision to re-cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa, thereby jeopardizing his ability to compete at next week’s Australian Open, is neither an act of war against the Serbian people nor an executive order by the lizard overlords of Project Delete The Sheeple. Or, in fact, anything that should be celebrated with real relish, unless the spectacle of forced deportations rings a bell.

Perhaps the people most directly affected by the Australian government’s intervention on Friday are those detained in the type of migrant shelter Djokovic escaped from last week. Those same harsh border policies will remain once the current celebrity edition has disappeared from the news cycle. And none of those unlucky ones still residing at Melbourne’s Park Hotel will be cheering warmly.

For now, it’s worth noting that the court ruling on the procedural fairness of Djokovic’s visa-summary justice at Melbourne airport has not been overturned. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has used a separate power of attorney to rule that Djokovic has no right to stay, either for reasons of public good or for reasons of bad character and misconduct. That decision will be reviewed on appeal over the weekend, but only with respect to its procedural correctness, not the content of the minister’s opinions.

And so we go again. For all the noise, the barely believable cut as a global news event of a Serbian tennis player’s weirdness about conventional medicine, there was something reassuring Friday night about seeing this hell settle on the pleasantly frown of the Judge Anthony. Kelly of the federal court in Melbourne.

Slumped in his high-backed chair, his tie crooked, Judge Kelly had the look of a man who is habitually horrified, without favor or exception, by every object in his line of sight. As requests were made and times discussed, he listened with an expression of weary suffering, as if stubbornly resisting a violent attack of sciatica. At one point he brushed off an interruption from Djokovic’s lawyer with the words “I’ll finish because it’s the last thing I want to say,” and you wondered, what, like… ever? The end result was not what Djokovic’s lawyers had been looking for, the re-offending of his case in Judge Kelly’s court over the weekend. Instead, he has referred to the next rung on the judicial ladder. And whatever the end result, this has been another disconcertingly strange step in a disconcertingly strange interlude.

Here we have the real-time intersection of humanity’s polarized response to a global plague and the irreconcilable career ambitions of the world’s best male tennis player and the Prime Minister of Australia. But some things have at least become a little clearer.

First of all, this is all excellent news for Scott Morrison, who is no doubt very grateful to have been given this influence in public opinion during an election year. No, don’t look around the hell of Covid cases. Watch instead as I spin Novak Djokovic around my head like a super healthy vegan celery juice Action Man.

Novak Djokovic's visa canceled: how the controversy unfolded - video
Novak Djokovic’s visa canceled: how the controversy unfolded – video

Is it possible to trim the emotive borders here? Djokovic can be a maddening figure. You may deserve it all for the basic stupidity of entering the country through a medical loophole while checking the wrong box on your border forms. But he’s still basically deported for the crime of making the prime minister look bad, for having weird opinions, for giving off a nasty vibe. And this at a time when it could do more harm than good to what remains of public discourse. This appears to be what his lawyers will seek to establish. It was put to Justice Kelly that the government had considered the effects of Djokovic’s presence on anti-vaccine sentiment, without also considering the effects of his own decision to deport the same people. Take a look at the Internet, Your Honor. He’s absolutely crazy out there.

The word binary was thrown around the courtroom. And it’s perhaps the most interesting point that comes out, because if Australia v Djokovic tells us anything, it’s that this is our world now. At one extreme, Australians can be invited to focus their anxiety on a single slightly ridiculous hate figure. On the other hand, Djokovic has already been enthroned as a hero by people who think #Australiahasfallen – melts, wokies, Bill Gates, whatever – while Djokovic Sr tells us that his son, who is undoubtedly very good in tennis, he is “a new world Spartacus” here to fight injustice, hypocrisy and (for some reason) colonialism.

Naturally, the 24-hour multi-camera circus of big sport is on hand to project these things, to take us to that place where only these polarized, and indeed incorrect, versions of reality can exist. In the shadow of all this there are two things worth remembering.

Djokovic is a very unusual person, in his sealed bubble of sports celebrity, surrounded by acolytes and supplicants. And Australia, too, is a rather strange place at the moment, a vast, dusty, atomized island nation, two years in isolation, gruelingly obedient, fatigued by the outbreak of anxiety.

Just as Covid really begins to tear, he meets this absurd and goofy Djoker, skating through customs with his twisted ways and his belief in detoxifying mind power. Take a step back and Djokovic’s arrival is the most absurdly provocative singles event imaginable on those shores at the moment, something that could have been staged just to push Australia’s buttons.

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What did we expect? It’s hard to see how Djokovic gets to play in Melbourne or, indeed, to imagine any sort of happy ending. Apart from the obvious. Frankly, the only sensible option would be to pull out and go now, to offer the rarest of things, a hand through the network split. No? Neither do I. See you again in court.

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