Novak Djokovic v Australia is a grudge match for our polarised age | Barney Ronay

The Guardian - Fri Jan 14 19:16

First they came for the multi-millionaire tennis players with pictures of border form infractions on their Instagram page. And I did not speak out.

Actually, no, it’s not quite that. The decision to re-cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa, thereby imperilling his ability to compete at next week’s Australian Open is not an act of war on the Serbian people, or an executive order from the lizard-lords of Project Deplete The Sheeple. Or indeed anything to be celebrated with any real relish, unless the spectacle of enforced deportations rings your bell.

Perhaps the people most directly concerned by the intervention of the Australian government on Friday are those detained in the kind of migrant hostel from which Djokovic escaped last week. Those same harsh border policies will remain once the current celebrity edition has faded out of the news cycle. And none of those unfortunates still resident in Melbourne’s Park Hotel will be cheering with any great warmth.

For now it is worth noting that the court decision on the procedural fairness of Djokovic’s summary visa-justice at Melbourne airport has not been overturned. Immigration minister Alex Hawke has used a separate statutory power to rule that Djokovic is not entitled to stay, whether on grounds of the public good, or for reasons of bad character and bad conduct. That decision will be reviewed on appeal over the weekend, but only with regard to its procedural correctnesses, not the content of the minister’s views.

And so we go again. For all the noise, the scarcely credible cut-through as a global news event of one Serbian tennis player’s weirdness about mainstream medicine, there was something reassuring on Friday evening in the sight of this inferno coming to rest on the agreeably furrowed brow of Judge Anthony Kelly of the Melbourne federal court.

Slumped in his high-backed chair, tie askew, Judge Kelly had the look of a man who finds himself routinely appalled, without favour or exception, by every single object in his eyeline. As petitions were made and timings wrangled over he listened with an expression of weary suffering, as though doggedly sitting out a violent bout of sciatica. At one point he batted away an interruption from Djokovic’s lawyer with the words “I will finish because it’s the last thing I wish to say”, and you wondered, what, like … ever? The end result was not the one Djokovic’s lawyers had been seeking, the re-inflicting of their case on Judge Kelly’s court over the weekend. Instead it has been referred to the next step up the judicial ladder. And whatever the ultimate outcome, this has been another bewilderingly strange step in a bewilderingly strange interlude.

Here we have the real-time intersection of humanity’s polarised response to a global plague, and the irreconcilable career ambitions of the world’s best male tennis player and the prime minister of Australia. But a few things have at least become a little clearer.

First it is all excellent news for Scott Morrison, who is no doubt hugely grateful to have been granted this lever on public opinion during an election year. No, don’t look over there at the inferno of Covid cases. Watch instead while I windmill Novak Djokovic around my head like a super-healthy vegan celery juice Action Man.

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Novak Djokovic’s visa cancelled: how the controversy unfolded – video

Is it possible to trim away the emotive edges here? Djokovic may be a maddening figure. He may deserve it all for the basic shithousery of entering the country via a medical loophole while ticking the wrong box on his border forms. But he is still basically being deported for the crime of making the prime minister look bad, for holding weird views, for giving out an unpleasant vibe. And this at a time when it might do more harm than good to what remains of the public discourse. This seems to be what his lawyers will seek to establish. It was put to Judge Kelly that the government had considered the effects of Djokovic’s presence on anti-vaccine sentiment, while not also considering the effects of its own decision to deport on the same people. Have a poke around the internet, Your Honour. It’s absolutely nuts out there.

The word binary was thrown around the courtroom. And it is perhaps the most interesting point to arise, because if Australia v Djokovic tells us anything it is that this is our world now. At one extreme the Australian people can be invited to focus their anxiety on a single, slightly ludicrous hate figure. On the other Djokovic has already been enthroned as a hero by people who think #Australiahasfallen – to melts, wokies, Bill Gates, whatever – while Djokovic Sr tells us his son, who is undoubtedly very good at tennis, is “a Spartacus of the new world” here to fight against injustice, hypocrisy and (for some reason) colonialism.

Naturally the 24-hour multi-camera circus of big sport is on hand to project this stuff, to take us into that place where only these polarised - and indeed incorrect – versions of reality can exist. In the shadow of all this there are two things worth remembering.

Djokovic is a highly unusual person, out there in his sealed bubble of celebrity sport entitlement, surrounded by acolytes and supplicants. And Australia is also a pretty weird place right now, a vast, dusty, atomised island nation, two years in isolation, gruellingly dutiful, fatigued by outbreak-anxiety.

Just as Covid really does start to let rip, it finds itself presented with this absurd, dunderheaded Djoker, skating in through customs with his wonky forms and his belief in detoxifying mind-power. Take a step back and the arrival of Djokovic is the most absurdly provocative single event imaginable on those shores right now, something that might have been staged just to press Australia’s already quivering buttons.

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What were we expecting? It is hard to see how Djokovic gets to play in Melbourne, or indeed to picture any kind of happy ending. Apart from the obvious one. Frankly the only sensible option would be to fold and leave now, to offer that rarest of things, a hand across the net-divide. No? Me neither. See you back in court.