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Novak Djokovic: a poster boy for anti-vaxxers?

The reaction to his deportation from Australia was ‘predictably polarised’

What a dramatic collision of sport and politics the Novak Djokovic saga has been, said Mary Dejevsky in The Independent. The world’s No. 1 male tennis player set off for Melbourne at the start of this month in the hope of defending his Australian Open title and securing the record 21st Grand Slam victory that would establish him as the most successful men’s player of all time. 

Although the Serbian hadn’t been vaccinated against Covid, a key entry requirement, he apparently believed that he’d been granted a medical exemption, on the grounds that he’d already had the virus. But his hopes were dashed. After a protracted legal wrangle – during which he was held in a quarantine hotel, then released, then taken back into custody again – Djokovic was this week deported from Australia, a process that comes with an automatic three-year ban on re-entry. 

The reaction to his deportation has been “predictably polarised”, said Oliver Brown in The Daily Telegraph. Among his supporters there is “cold fury”, but most Australians are pleased: in a poll, 83% said they wanted him removed. Djokovic brought much of this trouble on himself. The revelation that he broke isolation rules last month by attending a photo shoot in Belgrade while knowingly Covid-positive didn’t help his cause in Melbourne, and nor did the news that his agent had entered false details on his travel declaration. 

But the Australian authorities don’t emerge well from this saga either. His removal was a “transparently political move”, justified on the spurious grounds that “his mere presence could inflame anti-vaccination sentiment”. The reality, of course, is that Djokovic’s presence posed no risk to Australia at all. 

He clearly wasn’t about to foment “revolution among the unvaccinated masses”, said Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. Yet as a high-profile vaccine dissenter, he does have a symbolic power – one that doesn’t help foster the “collective effort” required for tackling Covid.

Djokovic “may wish to reflect on his choice not to get vaccinated”, said Stuart Fraser in The Times, because his stance means he’s now in danger of missing other tournaments and losing his No. 1 ranking. The US competitions in Indian Wells and Miami in March will probably be off-limits. 

He’s still likely to finish his career statistically as the greatest-ever male player: currently he’s level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 Gram Slam titles and, at 34, younger than both. “But his legacy has undoubtedly been tarnished by this affair, and he will certainly not be winning the subjective popularity contest between the ‘big three’.”

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