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The Novak Djokovic visa row is just latest step in a career of contradictions

In the same vein as his unerring domination of tennis, Novak Djokovic has rarely left anything to nuance. Within the world of sport, he has been cast as either an unstoppable heir or a cold iconoclast on a relentless pursuit of records. On matters of medical health, the twenty-times grand slam champion’s de facto second court, his reputation as a conspiracist or – at least in his own eyes – a martyr has always been rather more self-inflicted.

And so as the drama and diplomacy of Djokovic’s purgatory in Melbourne continues to unfold, with the Serbian’s detention at the Park Hotel now extended until Monday, it is hard not to feel as though we’ve been bubbling towards an eruption like this for years. Djokovic’s life has always been founded on an obstinate self-belief, procuring immense success and provoking regular controversy, particularly during the pandemic. Eventually, though, there had to be a flashpoint where the 34-year-old’s highly questionable beliefs collided with reality and didn’t still result in triumph.

Of course, there is still no absolute clarity over whether Djokovic will be granted permission to compete at the Australian Open. After eight hours at Melbourne Airport on Wednesday, his father, Srdjan, declared that his son was “the Spartacus of the new world” and that “he is like water and water paves its own path”. The delusions of grandeur are seemingly hereditary, but there can be little doubt that Djokovic is used to getting his own way.

To that end, the details surrounding Djokovic’s “medical exemption”, the manner of its rescinding, and what happens next remains shrouded in shades of grey. To the vast majority of the public, though, the case is black and white. Djokovic’s subtly gloating tweet before boarding a flight to Australia epitomised the arrogance of power and his sense of entitlement. That one of the world’s foremost anti-vaxxers should be allowed to enter a state that’s already been subjected to six lockdowns, each encumbering their own set of individual sacrifices and grief, was a source of bile that was impossible to swallow. The inevitable backlash was fierce, the political pressure enormous, and the need for intervention confirmed while Djokovic was still in mid-flight. “Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison tweeted as he confirmed Djokovic’s visa had been cancelled. “No one is above these rules.”

Although Djokovic remains popular with his fellow players, notably few rushed to his defence as the incident descended into a global media circus either. “The only clear thing for me 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,” Rafael Nadal said pointedly on Thursday. “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences.”

There will be few sympathies spared for Djokovic in that regard, but nobody has emerged with glory from this saga. Tennis Australia’s chief executive Craig Tiley and Victoria State assured that Djokovic had been subject to a rigorous process before he was granted his now-defunct exemption, and clearly he would not have boarded the plane without that guarantee. The Morrison government have seized on the subsequent fury with opportunism at a time of crisis and political uncertainty. The uniting force of schadenfreude now being directed towards Djokovic, ranging from ire to mockery, is clearly self-inflicted, perhaps rightful comeuppance, but still somewhat uncomfortable. He may hardly be “in chains”, as Srdjan has protested with a lack of subtlety, but there have undoubtedly been several forces pulling in separate directions, none of which can be considered entirely altruistic.

For Djokovic, you feel this is just the next step in the contradiction that has underlined his career. There has always been precious little to differentiate the man from the athlete. His stubborn single-mindedness – or selfishness – has been integral in becoming such a remarkable player. His beliefs in alternative medicine and ignorance towards science, no matter how patently questionable, are some of the building blocks to the wall he’s built around his own strange world. It has given him an aura of invincibility on the court and always left an air of imperfectness off of it. And while uncertainty rages over whether he will be deported or allowed to defend his title later, perhaps even regardless of its outcome, the saga will surely only deepen Djokovic in those ways.

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