Former world No.1 tennis player Rafael Nadal has made it clear that Novak Djokovic had to deal with the consequences of his choice not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, saying his rival had known for months about Australia’s strict vaccine rules.
Following a dramatic 24 hours in Melbourne, in which Djokovic arrived at Melbourne Airport only to have his visa cancelled, Nadal said: “If you don’t want to get the vaccine, you’re going to have some troubles”.
The comment came as widespread debate erupted over Australia’s refusal to allow Djokovic into the country, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserting that “rules are rules,” and Serbian reporter Sasa Ozmo describing Djokovic’s immigration refusal and detention as a “public humiliation”.
But Nadal, who has long supported vaccination for tennis players, was clear: “I think if he wanted, he would be playing here in Australia [at the Australian Open] without a problem,” he said.
“He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences. Of course I don’t like the situation that is happening. In some way I feel sorry for him. But at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, so he makes his own decision.”
Djokovic’s lawyers are challenging the decision made by Australian Border Force. His case has been adjourned until Monday.
Speaking for the first time since arriving in Australia after his Open campaign was threatened due to a COVID-19 infection, Nadal, who is level with Djokovic on 20 grand slam titles, offered his sympathy to Australians.
“It’s normal that the people here in Australia get very frustrated with the case, because they have been going through a lot of very hard lockdowns,” Nadal said. “A lot of people were not able to come back home.”
He backed the role of science and medicine. “After a lot of people have been dying for two years my feeling is with the vaccine, [it’s] the only way to stop this pandemic. The only for me clear thing is if you are vaccinated, you can play in the Australian Open and everywhere, and the world in my opinion have been suffering enough to not follow the rules.”
Fellow top 10 star Matteo Berrettini had some sympathy for Djokovic’s plight since his arrival in Australia, but agreed with the stance that vaccination was the simplest path to playing at Melbourne Park.
“For sure, I have some sympathy. I don’t know how many hours he was there, but at the same time, I feel like Melbourne had the longest lockdown in the world, so I understand the [frustration] of the people,” Berrettini said. “It’s just really complicated. What I can tell you is I’m vaccinated and I’m here, we will see how this thing is going to be.”
If Djokovic does not take his place at Melbourne Park on January 17, Daniil Medvedev will almost certainly start the tournament as favourite. After leading Russia to the ATP Cup semi-finals on Thursday, he said his view was “quite straightforward”.
“There are rules, there are exemptions from rules. I cannot know exactly what happened in the papers. What we know, I know the same as everybody.
“If he had a fair exemption from the rule, well, he should be here. If he didn’t, he shouldn’t be here.
“It sounds easy, but it’s very tough in real life.”
Djokovic ‘in Australian captivity’
Earlier, Djokovic’s father, Srdjan Djokovic,described his son as the “symbol and the leader of the free world,” and the “Spartacus” of a new world – one that “does not tolerate injustice, colonialism and hypocrisy”.
In comments translated from Serbian paper Telegraf, Srdjan Djokovic said: “My son is tonight in Australian captivity, but he has never been more free. From this moment, Novak has become the symbol and the leader of the free world, the world of the poor and disadvantaged nations and peoples.
“My son Novak Djokovic has shown that a small, but heroic country like Serbia, can have the best tennis player and sportsman of all time and that truth can no longer be hidden,” adding that, the “rich world” may not allow his son to continue to play tennis.
“Tonight they can imprison him, tomorrow they can chain him, but the truth is like water and it will always find its way.”
“Novak is the Spartacus of the new world which does not tolerate injustice, colonialism and hypocrisy, but fights for the equality of all people on the planet, regardless of the colour of their skin, regardless of which God they worship and how much money they have.
“Novak has shown that any goal can be reached if you have your dreams, and that dream of his is shared by billions of people and children who look up to him.
“Maybe the rich world will not let ‘Nole’ play tennis anymore, but by doing that it will have revealed its true face and a much more serious game will thus begin.
“On one side, there will be greedy and arrogant members of the world’s oligarchy, and on the other, the whole freedom-loving and proud world which still believes in justice, the truth, fair play and their children’s dreams.”
Former Australian Open tournament director Paul McNamee was left stunned that Djokovic would be the only Australian Open participant so far to have his visa approved and then rejected.
“For those asking, all players go through the same visa process overseen by Tennis Australia to play the Australian Open [as non Australians are currently not able to enter]. So it beggars belief that Djokovic is the only player that has had his visa granted and then rescinded,” McNamee said on Twitter.
On Wednesday, the former doubles champion said: “We need to remember one thing … even if you are angry, Novak Djokovic did not set the rules.”
‘Australia doesn’t deserve to host a grand slam’
Djokovic also found a supporter in two-time Australian Open quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren, who has chosen not to attend this year’s tournament because of the vaccine mandate.
“Just to be crystal clear here, two separate medical boards approved his exemption,” Sandgren wrote online, “and politicians are stopping it. Australia doesn’t deserve to host a grand slam.”
Sandgren also mocked the Victorian government for not supporting Djokovic’s visa on Wednesday night.
“LOL trusting the science once again,” Sandgren wrote.
Sandgren, who was a vocal critic of the quarantine measures at last year’s tournament and became the face of the COVID-19 chaos at the time when he was allowed on a chartered flight to Australia after his positive test was deemed to be “viral shedding,” appears to be in the minority among his cohort.
Highly respected sports journalist and commentator Jon Wertheim, a Sports Illustrated executive editor, reflected on the dynamics of Australian politics.
“Never mind break points saved … this is face saved. Advantage, Morrison,” Wertheim tweeted, referencing the Australian Prime Minister.
“Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” Morrison tweeted on Thursday morning. “No one is above these rules.”
Ukrainian tennis veteran Sergiy Stakhovsky accused Australia of “political ego”.
“When next time somebody will tell you ‘sports is not interfering with politics’ you remember the 6 Jan 2022 when purely political ‘ego’ is not allowing best tennis player in the world to enter the country to which they ‘governmental institutions’ granted entry,” Stakhovsky said on Twitter.
The 35-year-old last year was a supporter of Tennis Australia’s efforts to get the 2021 Australian Open off the ground in the middle of the pandemic, when players and officials were required to undertake hotel quarantine beforehand.
Several players offered cautious support for Djokovic’s entry into the country when asked about the news on Wednesday, and prominent New York Times tennis reporter Ben Rothenberg offered his view after the rejection news was revealed.
“Whatever happens as this unfolds here, this is completely Novak Djokovic’s fault for not getting the vaccine in the first place, which he had *months* to do,” Rothenberg wrote on Twitter.
“Best case scenario for everyone would have been a vaxxed (sic) Novak playing the #AusOpen with no drama. He chose against that.”
Reporter Sasa Ozmo, who has a close working relationship with Djokovic, described the situation as “public humiliation”.
“You follow the rules set by the authorities of the country. You fly across the world to then be told by the same people who approved your application that you can’t enter, while being isolated in a room,” Ozmo wrote on Twitter.
“That’s not the way to treat anybody. Public humiliation.”