Illustration by Jam Moreno.

The Australian Open Saga: What happened with Novak Djokovic?

The world’s number one tennis player was deported from Australia after getting caught amid a political controversy regarding his Covid-19 vaccination status.

Feb 7, 2022

In 2011, Novak Djokovic, a Serbian tennis star, became the number one singles tennis player on the American Tennis Professionals’ Association (ATP) list. In 2022, Novak was on his way to defend his 21st Grand Slam title and break the tie between himself, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in an attempt to make history. Instead, he became the subject of a political controversy when his visa was revoked for not being vaccinated before coming to the Australian Open.
I remember being only 10 when Djokovic battled for the number one spot on the ATP male singles list for the first time in 2011. As Serbians everywhere gathered in houses and outside gardens to root for him, his win was a win for all of Serbia.
Despite being home to prominent scientists like Nikola Tesla and Nobel Prize winners like Ivo Andric, Serbia entered the spotlight again thanks to Novak Djokovic after the years of war in the 1990s. He embodied all the values that Serbs like to put forward in the public sphere — resilience, humility and perseverance. He was and still is immensely loved by the Serbian people all around the world. This is exactly why, when he made his way to Australia and got detained in the infamous Park Hotel — where detainees have denounced horrible living conditions — Serbia went into an uproar.
Had Djokovic participated in the 2022 Australian Open, he would have been defending his 21st Grand Slam, making history. However, when he landed in Melbourne, things changed rapidly. Despite getting the necessary medical approval to play in the Australian Open from two independent health panels — Tennis Australia and the state government of Victoria — Djokovic’s visa was revoked. At that point, whether or not he would remain in the country was left up to the court. The court reinstated his visa, claiming that the grounds for cancellations were unreasonable, and people thought that would be it.
However, the Australian Minister for Immigration, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, Alex Hawke, exercised his power and revoked his visa once again, under claims it was in the interests of the public. He also said that Djokovic's presence in Australia could help strengthen the anti-vaxxer movement and incite civil unrest.
With the influence that someone like Djokovic can have on the public, one could argue there is pressure and responsibility on his part to pose an example for others. Although he tried to keep his stance on vaccination private at first, he eventually expressed his reluctance to get the Covid-19 vaccine. He also claimed that he has no issue with the vaccines themselves, but that he has a right to choose what he puts in his body. He also said he remains open minded in regards to vaccination and that his views may someday change. However, these public statements tainted him with the “anti-vaxxer label.”
Furthermore, news surfaced that he had also broken quarantine rules in Serbia back in December of 2021. Djokovic later admitted to this, claiming it was a lapse in judgment and apologized. Nevertheless, mistakes were made that endangered the health and safety of other people. He also addressed the allegations that he had lied on his travel forms to Australia, claiming that it had been his team filling out the forms on his behalf and the reason why the forms were inaccurate was a human error.
Still, Serbian people stood with Novak, criticizing the treatment he was receiving from the Australian governing bodies, as he had previously gotten an all-clear to travel and attend the tournament. Two independent Australian health panels approved his medical exemption. Despite this, he had been detained for 11 days, in unfavorable conditions along with other refugees and asylum seekers who have been stuck there for years. This shed some light on Australia’s strict border policies which have been said to border on cruelty. Even James Blake, the Miami Masters tournament director, spoke up in Novak’s defense after hearing of his treatment in Melbourne, despite not agreeing with his views on vaccination. Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament’s director also hinted that there were other unvaccinated players playing at the Australian Open who have been granted medical exemptions. This added to the complexity of the case, raising a few eyebrows.
The fact that politics played a part in Djokovic’s deportation did not sit well with the Serbian government either. The Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, issued a statement directed at the Australian Prime Minister to stop tormenting the tennis player and his family. The President issued another statement after speaking to Djokovic about his deportation, saying he was disappointed with the visa cancellation and said “If [the Australian government] wanted to [cancel the visa], why not do it 10 days ago?”
The chain of events made international headlines. Despite many news outlets reporting, the details remain murky and veiled under layers of hearsay. There were mistakes made on both sides — Djokovic and the Australian government alike.
Novak spoke to the Serbian public a few days after his arrival and asked for patience saying he will reveal his side of the story in seven to ten days.
While we wait for further details on the situation, one thing remains certain: Novak will not be making history at the Australian Open.
Sara Vuksanovic is Senior Features Editor. Email her at
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