Guess who's coming to the tennis?
The question is, would the character played by the much loved and recently departed Sidney Poitier in his 1963 movie be more welcome to dinner in a Melbourne household than Novak Djokovic during the Australian Open?
Celebrities come and go. Some leave a legacy. Some leave a cloud of controversy. Some just can’t come to the table: as I write the Governor-General, the Federal Treasurer and former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull are all stricken with Covid-19. Is there a Sydney Harbour Point Piper- Kirribilli curse?
You can forgive the Australian people, and dare I say it in this time of a fractured Federation - Victorians more than most - for feeling perplexed.
Victorians have endured 20 months of combined lockdowns, mask wearing, restrictions on socialising and sporting activities, compulsory QR code check-ins and being required to be double vaccinated with a booster chaser in the fight against Covid-19. After such an ordeal, the staging of next week’s Australian Open was meant to be an end of summer distraction that could regenerate a sense of relative freedom and fun, so long absent in one of the world’s great sports loving cities. Ah, the best laid plans!
There are many permanent riddles. Why is my shaving cream manufactured in Thailand, my razor blades in Ireland, yet are packaged in Germany? How can there be an abundant supply of them both on Melbourne’s supermarket shelves, when summer stone fruit grown 300 miles from Melbourne cannot be delivered to its CBD?
The dilemma du jour is this: Why do Victorians who will be watching the Australian Open have to be double vaccinated, have masks at the ready and provide full details of their time and date of entry, but the world’s leading male tennis player has to do none of these things, except probably wear a mask coming to and from the court? This year’s Open has branded itself with the slogan, “ United by Play”- such a hope may well not be possible!
An even more puzzling question is how the fundamental question of player and public protection became waylaid by what appears to be another hapless lack of communication between Federal and State governments and then aggravated by a hamfisted display by Australia’s border security force?
I remember two guiding principles from my time at law school. The first is that hard cases make bad law: the integrity and consistency of the law cannot be overturned in a search for what may appear the most just result. The second is that due process is at the heart of justice.
Those scratching their heads about the seeming injustice of an openly proud unvaccinated tennis player being able to compete in a tournament where ALL other players are, must remember that Djokovic’s off-court victory was not a victory for his medical beliefs. Rather, it was a reprieve based on a denial of his rights to be able to present his case at Melbourne airport in a fair and reasonable manner. In seeking to enforce the law the authorities neglected Djokovic’s rights. Combine this ineptitude with Djokovic’s “I did everything that was asked of me“ defence and the Federal Circuit Court ruled that the denial of Djokovic’s right to enter the country was unreasonable.
This is why the great democracies have the separation of powers doctrine, which sees independent courts overseeing the enforcement of parliament’s laws. In the wretched dictatorships of this world, the State is judge, jury and executioner.
It still beggars belief that Tennis Australia were allowed to provide for an exemption for players that were not vaccinated. Whether or not Djokovic’s second round of infection makes him less of an infectious risk is irrelevant for mine. I cannot work without proof of my double vaccination. I am a resident citizen. Why can an international visitor usurp this national practice? “No jab-No play”, as we have been saying at the nation’s primary schools for years. Now for most of us it is a case of “No Jab - No Pay". As it should be. The Federal government should have made clear to Tennis Australia that no unvaccinated players would be able to participate. Full stop.
Think of the irony, if not the perversity. If Djokovic does play because he has been infected recently, he will be playing because he has contracted the malady that millions have been desperately trying to avoid or prevent. Bad choices make for bad reactions, literally and in a broader political sense. If he does play, there will be a palpable sense of unease and discomfort for many as he takes to the court. Surrounded by his Serbian coterie that remind him every day that he is the greatest player ever, Djokovic’s insensitivity to the maelstrom he created, even before he landed in Melbourne, is unbecoming. He is not a champion who will be remembered for his quiet dignity.
Djokovic dodged being dragged across the tarmac and being deported yesterday. The ball is now in the court of our political masters to decide whether to exercise Executive discretion, override the Federal Circuit Court and, once again, cancel Djokovic’s visa. In an election year, where does the political balance of convenience sit?
The forced removal of Djokovic would only add to the worldwide drama and attention this episode has generated. Those that may have worried that the Australian Open was the minor of the four Slams need worry no more! The frisson from down under has spread around the sporting world.
Pending the final outcome of this saga, it is worth remembering that there is a tournament starting next week. The Ashes are secure in Australia’s keeping, so could Australia have its first singles champion at its home Open since Chris O’Neill’s Women’s singles victory in 1978 and Mark Edmondson’s triumph in the Men’s singles in 1976?
Ashleigh Barty seems to have destiny on her side. She won last year’s Wimbledon title 50 years after her mentor and heroine, Evonne Cawley won the first of her two titles in 1971. Barty now has the chance to win the 100th edition of the Women’s Singles title at the Australian Open. If not this year, when? Serena is not here, nor is Karolina Pliskova. Defending chamption Naomi Osaka is present to defend her title, but her recent form and moods are mercurial at best. Sofia Kenin has not prospered since her 2020 Australian Open triumph. Barty’s emphatic defeat of fellow French Open champion Iga Swiatek in the semi-finals of the Adelaide tournament last weekend suggests she is primed, notwithstanding her withdrawal from the Sydney tournament.
Barty’s recent history at the Australian Open suggests that she is prone to falter in the way that Amelie Mauresmo repeatedly did at the French Open in front an overly expectant home crowd. If she makes the final, Barty will win. I worry more about a shock third or fourth round loss. Who are the other major contenders ? I would like to say Aryna Sabalenka is a legitimate contender, but she is not made of stern enough stuff. Muguruza is flashy, but not consistent enough for me. Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur may be one to watch.
A Barty victory will not be enough to distract people from the tumult of the Men’s game. Put simply, can one of Medvedev, Zverev or Tsitsipas derail Djokovic’s audacious assault at history? There will be strong support for Nadal, but age and injuries have wearied him. Whilst Melbourne has seen some of Nadal’s greatest battles, it has not seen his greatest ratio of success.
Meanwhile, the trifles of whether Australia’s schoolchildren will be able to resume their studies on-campus in the week following the Open, how Australia-(starved of the usual flow of immigrants by its restrictive international border policies during the pandemic)-can harvest its produce and restock its supermarket shelves, or provide enough staff for its hospitals, restaurants and hotels, and whether there will ever be enough rapid antigen tests to know how many people are truly infected, remain to be solved!
Yes, we were told “we are all in this together"; however, it seems that our pandemic definition of “close contact” means that we are now all at home together isolating, whilst the semi-trailers heading to the supermarkets remain stationary. In an election year, the Federal government will not want the economy to be hamstrung for too much longer. Also, in an election year, could the deportation of Djokovic be a punitive panacea for the Coalition’s electoral fortunes?