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A hard lesson for Novak Djokovic: patience with vaccine sceptics is wearing thin | Gaby Hinsliff



This weekend, Novak Djokovic should have been warming up for yet another grand slam.

But instead the world No 1 tennis champion – and noted vaccine sceptic – is cooling his heels in an Australian quarantine hotel, while an international row rages over whether he should be kicked out of the country altogether. Djokovic had boasted on social media of securing an exemption, for medical reasons he has not explained, to the rules that all players in the Australian Open must be double-jabbed. But hours later he was stopped at the airport, his visa cancelled, and he was unceremoniously threatened with deportation. His lawyers are challenging that ruling, meaning the outcome of this particular tournament may now be determined in a court – rather than on one. Not since the actor Johnny Depp and his then wife, Amber Heard, flew their two dogs, Pistol and Boo, into the country by private jet without the necessary paperwork has the power of celebrity met the force of Australian biosecurity requirements with quite such explosive results.

In fairness to Djokovic, this farce may not be entirely his fault. Someone somewhere, either in his camp or in Australian tennis, may have screwed up by allowing a situation to arise where the tournament’s biggest box office draw was seemingly given a free pass to compete in the country, but not actually to get there. Yet few tears will be shed for the man now inevitably known as “Novaxx” Djokovic.

Around the world, patience with those who are wilfully unvaccinated is running out in the face of yet another viral surge. Just over a month ago, I wrote about how the mood might harden as intensive care beds filled with patients realising too late that they should have got the jab, while restrictions once again loomed over people who had done what was asked of them. Now that scenario is unfolding, with France’s President Macron playing to the gallery by vowing to do everything he can to “piss off” those who are unjabbed, while angry callers to British radio phone-ins demand anti-vaxxers be stripped of their right to NHS treatment if they get sick.


Elsewhere in sport, the Premier League, facing a stubborn minority of unvaccinated top-flight footballers and fears of cancelled fixtures, has reportedly discussed making those who are unjabbed travel separately to games or eat their meals away from other players. It’s an uncomfortably divisive idea, stopping only just short of making them carry a bell and shout: “Unclean! Unclean!” But what if the alternative is double-jabbed players growing increasingly resentful at having to sit matches out because they’re isolating, after contact with infected teammates? Balancing the incontrovertible human right to refuse a vaccine against the rights of others not to be held hostage by that decision is the single biggest challenge of this stage of the pandemic, and that’s what makes Djokovic’s case resonate far beyond tennis.

There is an undeniably ugly undercurrent to some of this hostility towards the unvaccinated, who are disproportionately likely to be poor, marginalised and from minority-ethnic backgrounds. Punishing people who often have deep-seated reasons not to trust the authorities for failing to get their jabs not only risks heaping discrimination upon discrimination, but represents a profound failure to understand why they didn’t want to comply in the first place, which makes it impossible to convince them to change their minds.

But there’s nothing obviously marginalised about a millionaire sportsman arrogantly demanding the right to jet into a country suffering record infection rates in hopes of lifting yet another lucrative trophy. Australians have endured restrictions so draconian that thousands of them stranded abroad at the start of the pandemic weren’t even allowed back into their own country. Djokovic has less in common with an agonised British care worker, on minimum wage, facing the sack if they don’t get the jab, than with a frequently more middle-class form of anti-vaxxer who slips under the radar. He is a believer in “natural” healing who once suggested that polluted water could be cleansed by the power of positive thinking, insisting that science had proved “that molecules in the water react to our emotions”. He’s entitled to hold whatever wacky beliefs he likes, of course, but he doesn’t have a God-given right to escape the professional consequences of them, and still less does he have the right to impose consequences on others. The clout he wields as an international sportsman, meanwhile, makes it all the more important that he be seen to follow the rules.

“One rule for them, another for the rest of us” remains the single most toxic charge of the pandemic, whether levelled against Downing Street aides tucking into convivial Christmas wine and cheese at a time when ordinary mortals weren’t even allowed to see their own parents, or against big-shot Hollywood names granted entry to Australia for film and TV work when most people were barely allowed to leave their own homes.

It taps into a sense of grievance about elites getting away with things the little guy can’t that is arguably never far from the surface of politics, visibly inflamed by a pandemic in which too many powerful people have been caught ducking the rules so painfully obeyed by others. No wonder Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister criticised for his own handling of the pandemic, leapt at the chance to declare that “rules are rules” and apply to everyone. Unlike tennis, fighting a pandemic is a team effort. If he doesn’t want to be booed off the next court he actually gets to play on, Djokovic would do well to remember that.


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