Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic received raucous applause on Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena court Friday night, his first time back to the top Australian tennis stage since the government imprisoned him in a migrant detention facility and deported him for not ingesting a Chinese coronavirus vaccine last year.
Djokovic is expected to play this year’s Australian Open – one of the four “Grand Slams,” the world’s most prestigious tennis tournaments – and is a favorite to win the contest, which begins Monday.
Djokovic appeared on Rod Laver Arena on Friday for a charity exhibition match against Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios, whom he developed an unlikely friendship with during the vaccine mandate crisis.
Djokovic is the most prominent tennis professional to publicly state he is unvaccinated and has no interest in receiving any vaccine doses in light of being infected with the Chinese coronavirus on multiple occasions since the pandemic began in 2019. Under the government of former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a self-proclaimed conservative, Canberra imposed brutal quarantine measures on its own people and rigorous vaccine mandate requirements on foreigners.
Djokovic had received a legal visa to enter the country in early 2022 by obtaining a medical exemption to the vaccine requirement, but the government imprisoned him anyway and, ultimately, deported him out of fear that his presence in the country would “excite anti-vaccine sentiment.” Morrison’s government banned Djokovic from entering Australia for three years.
The fallout from Morrison’s coronavirus policies, fueled in part by public outrage over the Djokovic fiasco, preceded Morrison’s party losing power. New left-wing Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who took office in May, lifted Morrison’s coronavirus rules for foreign travelers in August. The new rules allowed Djokovic to arrive in Australia without incident in late December:
Great to be back in Australia 🇺 And after 15 years excited to play in Adelaide, Kaurna Land 🙏🙌 Looking forward to play some good tennis 🎾💪 Glad to have my brother Marko @djokomare with me and my team for 2023 season https://t.co/L5P2XAfjui
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) December 30, 2022
Djokovic played several warmup tournaments to the Australian Open before this weekend, but Friday’s exhibition match was his first return to the Australian Open grounds. The head of Tennis Australia, Craig Tiley – apparently fearing the crowd would be hostile in light of last year’s immigration disaster – warned prior to the match that organizers would show zero tolerance for hecklers.
“If they disrupt the enjoyment of anyone else – boom, they are out,” Tiley said in an interview with the Herald Sun. “We don’t want them on site. They can stay away or we will kick them out.”
The crowd, heavily populated by fellow Serbians, showed nothing but enthusiasm for Djokovic’s return:
Unbeaten on Rod Laver in five years, Novak Djokovic returns to the court.
— James Gray (@jamesgraysport) January 13, 2023
“If there were any boos, they were drowned out by an overwhelming show of affection from an adoring crowd who had paid just £11 ($13.43) for tickets and sold out the 15,000-capacity arena in just 58 minutes,” i sports correspondent James Gray wrote of the event.
“It just feels great to be back in Australia, back in Melbourne,” Djokovic told the audience. “This is the court and the stadium where I created the best memories of my professional tennis career. Back in 2008 was the first time I won a grand slam, it was here, and 15 years later I’m here again and I’m competing at the high level”:
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 13, 2023
Djokovic has won 21 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any other man aside from Rafael Nadal – who won the 2022 Australian Open after Djokovic’s deportation. Djokovic’s first Grand Slam victory was at the 2008 Australian Open; he has won the title nine times.
The extended saga last year that resulted in Djokovic not being able to play for a 21st title – he later obtained it at Wimbledon, which imposed less onerous coronavirus vaccine requirements but banned Russian and Belarusian players in solidarity with Ukraine – began in late 2021 with his father, Srdjan, accusing the Australian government of “blackmail” and stating in an interview that he did not believe he would travel to the country because of vaccine requirements. The younger Djokovic applied for a medical exemption from the vaccine mandate, reportedly on the grounds that he had recently tested positive for Chinese coronavirus, and received a valid visa. He was arrested shortly after arriving in Melbourne, however, and tossed into a migrant detention facility, treated as an illegal alien.
Djokovic’s arrest prompted mass protests outside of the facility by Serbian-Australian fans and immigration activists demanding the liberation of everyone at the facility, not just the tennis champion. Australian officials engaged in tense negotiations to subdue the protests and banned an Orthodox priest from visiting Djokovic on the January date those of the Serbian Orthodox faith celebrate Christmas.
Following his deportation, in an interview in February, Djokovic stated that he was willing to sacrifice future tournament wins to maintain sovereignty over his body.
“And I understand that not being vaccinated today, I’m unable to travel to most of the tournaments at the moment. That is the price I’m willing to pay,” Djokovic told the BBC. “The principles of decision-making on my body are more important than any title or anything else.”
Amid the scandal, Nick Kyrgios, a longtime Djokovic detractor who had previously described him as “cringeworthy” and a “tool,” loudly condemned his own government for the treatment of his rival.
“Like these memes, headlines, this is one of our great champions but at the end of the day, he is human,” Kyrgios wrote on Twitter. “Do better.”
I just think it’s crazy. I feel so sorry for him. Preparing for an Australian Open or grand slam is enough for someone and the pressures that he has are so unique,” Kyrgios later elaborated on a podcast. “He’s going for 21 slams, being Novak Djokovic preparing is already enough, and I feel with dealing with the media, already having a court case, winning that, and now being detained again from that, still trying to practice, still trying to prepare and now his visa’s cancelled.”
“It’s just a shitshow,” he lamented.
The public comments resulted in the two connecting privately, dramatically changing the tenor of their relationship:
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 13, 2023
The two developed a friendship that became increasingly public and warm prior to their meeting in the Wimbledon men’s singles final last year, which Djokovic won. Kyrgios’s presence in that final was his best-ever performance at a Grand Slam alone; he won the Australian Open doubles title alongside partner Thanasi Kokkinakis last year.
The Australian Open begins Monday. Given coronavirus travel restrictions under leftist President Joe Biden, at press time, Djokovic is not allowed to enter the United States and thus is likely not to be allowed into the last Grand Slam tournament of the year, the U.S. Open.