ABC News screenshot

The sensational border blockade of world tennis number one Novak Djokovic, just days before he was set to defend his title at the Australian Open, has dominated this week’s global headlines.

Having spent hours under armed guard at Melbourne airport, Djokovic yesterday received an injunction to stay in hotel detention until Monday, when his legal team will take the matter to the Federal Court.

Some believe the odds are in his favour and that he may yet make it to Margaret Court Arena.

Opinions on Djokovic fly in every direction but a common theme is that of ire towards Australia’s once-favourite Serbian. In terse, bureaucratic language, Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted a sentiment now shared by many Australians:

Djokovic has won the Australian Open a record nine times, including at the last three consecutive meets. Until vaccination came into the picture, there was no shortage of respect between Australia and the dominating world champ. When bushfires ravaged our country in 2020, Novak donated $25k to suffering communities.

So why is the Djoker now so controversial?

Perhaps it is his personality. While Djokovic’s skill and discipline is unquestioned, sports reporters have long commented on his lack of charm with crowds. Novak’s ego, especially in his younger years, has turned many off.

But in truth, the same could be said of some of Australia’s best tennis talent: think Hewitt, Tomic, Kyrgios. Even more iconic tennis greats such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have not escaped the charge of arrogance — perhaps owing to the lone-ranger style of the sport itself.

Is it that Novak wants special treatment as a sports star? This has been a commonly-voiced criticism, but once again, it doesn’t align with the facts of the situation. Writing for The Age, former deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration Abul Rizvi explains:

Having been granted a visa, Djokovic had every right to think he would be allowed to enter Australia. Indeed, he did have a legal right. He would have used that visa to board a plane to Australia.

Moreover:

Djokovic has made his views on vaccines very clear. The Department of Home Affairs should have asked Djokovic questions about his vaccination status, and any exemptions he might have been seeking, when he initially applied for a visa. If he refused to satisfactorily answer these questions, his visa application should have been refused.

Rizvi is convinced that both Border Force and Djokovic “will need to answer some difficult questions” but that “it would never have come to this if Home Affairs and Border Force had been on the ball.”

On the matter of Novak’s exemption to compete in the Open (which is distinct from his visa), tournament director Craig Tiley said that exemptions for others were also granted and that Djokovic was not given special treatment.

Could Australians be upset with Djokovic because they believe he is a threat to our public health? Perhaps the most diehard covid fans believe so, but surely the majority can see otherwise.

Owing to our border settings, we know that the (fortunately mild) omicron variant was brought to Australia by vaccinated travellers. It is now spreading uncontrolled up and down our east coast — and in jurisdictions with vaccination rates of around 93 percent.

In the last fortnight, some half-million new cases have been recorded. Test positivity rates remain high, indicating that this number is just the tip of the iceberg.

In such an environment, what level of threat does Djokovic actually pose? He isn’t sick with Covid, so he has no virus to spread. But he did have it previously, which (according to 140 studies) gives him superior immunity to those who have been vaccinated.

None of these seem to be satisfactory answers as to why Australians have turned their backs on Novak. So why have we?

It’s quite simple.

Australians have suffered under some of the worst bureaucratic bungling on the planet these last two years. To justify that suffering, we want the tall poppies to suffer too — tall poppies like Djokovic.

I can’t cross borders without a vaccine, so neither should he. I wasn’t allowed to leave isolation without proof of the jab, so neither should he. I can’t work without a medical passport, so neither should he.

The ire of Aussies is directed at Novak when it should be turned towards the meddling bureaucracy. Australia is over 90 percent vaccinated and we were going to “live with Covid” after 70 percent. While cases have risen, the death rate has plummeted. There are also questions about waning efficacy and the vaccines’ ability to stave of omicron in any case.

The Prime Minister may think he is point-scoring before an important election. In fact, he is distracting from his own failures.

His sudden love of border egalitarianism would have been more useful at peak-suffering last year, when I wrote of celebrities who were happily traversing our borders while Aussies missed weddings, funerals and were stuck overseas for months at a time.

Are we living with Covid, or are we still playing pandemic politics?

Novak certainly knows the answer.

Kurt Mahlburg is a writer and author, and an emerging Australian voice on culture and the Christian faith. He has a passion for both the philosophical and the personal, drawing on his background as a graduate...