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Tennis. Why the Djokovic affair is setting Australia on fire

For 48 hours, Australia has been living to the rhythm of the “Djokovic affair”. The announcement of a medical exemption granted to the Serbian tennis player in view of the Melbourne Open (January 17-30), then that of the cancellation of his visa by the authorities after being stuck for hours at the airport, fueled the debates in the Pacific country. His possible expulsion from Australia does not move the locals in any case.

The press and public opinion were against the coming of the Serbian champion, yet nine times winner of the Australian Open. In the space of a few hours, the world number 1 has become “persona non grata” in the land of kangaroos. His refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and the fact of having obviously benefited from a free pass from the State of Victoria, which hosts the tournament, and the Australian Tennis Federation have made jump the population.

Strong restrictions for two years

It must be said that Australians have had to endure some of the longest periods of confinement in the world. The country’s government has long relied on a “zero-Covid” strategy and has long not hesitated to reconfine its compatriots at the slightest jolt of the pandemic. A strategy undermined by the arrival of the Delta and Omicron variants. More than 21,000 cases have been reported in the state of Victoria, which hosts the Australian Open, in the past 24 hours.

“Few countries have taken such a strict, if not extreme, approach to their management of Covid as Australia,” said Tim Soutphommasane, an academic and former Australian Discrimination Commissioner, in October. In total, Melbourne experienced 262 days of confinement, a world record. The Australian Open was also held under very strict conditions in 2021, with a quarantine imposed on all players in contact upon their arrival in the country. The public had been present sparingly as the health situation changed.

The vaccine has since arrived and the population, vaccinated at 91.5% (for 16 years and over), is susceptible to those who have not received their injections. “Some people were not even able to have a derogation to visit sick family members who lived in another state and he has the right to enter the country”, protested a resident in The Team.

A feeling shared mainly in the country, up to the medical community. Stephen Parnis, eminent doctor in the country, was also offended by the arrival of Novak Djokovic to defend his title. “I don’t care if he’s a good tennis player. If he refuses to be vaccinated, he should not be allowed to enter. If this exemption is true, it sends a distressing message to the millions of people seeking to reduce the risk of Covid-19 in Australia to themselves and others,” he posted on Twitter.

The misunderstanding was total in the press as well. The Australian daily The Courier Mail didn’t hesitate to play with words and protested “You must be Djoking” (“You must be joking”) on the front page of his edition of Wednesday January 5 about the arrival of the man he nicknamed “No -vax”. Former tennis player Sam Groth (53rd in the world in 2015) translated the discontent of the inhabitants by declaring that “Novak Djokovic’s medical exemption spits in the face of all Australians”.

A case turned political

The community of players has not been much moved either by the grotesque situation of the Serb since his first steps on Australian soil. In particular his great Spanish rival, Rafael Nadal. “Everyone is free to make their own decisions, but there are consequences. On the one hand, I feel sorry for him. But he knew the conditions, ”said the former world number 1.

The case has taken on such proportions that it has seen the federal government oppose the decision of the State of Victoria to let Novak Djokovic come to Australia. A rather rare measure which testifies to the political dimension that the affair has taken in the country. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, anxious to ensure his popularity and to listen to his people, took up the subject and declared that the champion was not “above the rules”.

“For the Australian Federal Government, border control is a key issue, while Victoria wants to ensure that a successful tournament can be staged. Usually, these two objectives do not intersect ”, summarizes Matthew Wrigley, lawyer originally from Melbourne, on the site of The Team. But Novak Djokovic has long been a divisive character.

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