From porn to pepper spray: How Novak Djokovic’s case in Australia descended into chaos

A day that began with a dry procedural debate in a Melbourne courtroom culminated in anarchy on this stately city’s streets, as hundreds of Novak Djokovic’s Serbian supporters exploded in anger at the Australian government’s continued efforts to throw their hero out of the country.

Never did anyone in the genteel world of tennis imagine that their sport could spark such toxicity, with Victoria police firing pepper spray at protestors blocking the path of a car they presumed was carrying Mr Djokovic. It turned out that the world number one was in a nearby office with his lawyers, a free man after four days’ detention. However, he is by no means out of the legal mire as Alex Hawke, the Australian immigration minister, weighed up cancelling his visa for a second time.

Mr Djokovic has set off a few diplomatic fires during his volatile career, but here he has triggered a violent mutiny – not to mention a febrile national debate over his claims of a medical exemption from vaccination against Covid-19. So much for the Australian Open’s carefully-nurtured reputation as the “happy slam”. 

Science sceptic Novak Djokovic in his own words

When Anthony Kelly, the federal judge, upheld his appeal against being deported, it appeared as if a fragile peace had been brokered. But no sooner had the sun set over Melbourne than the mood among Mr Djokovic’s supporters turned to fury, as they accused Scott Morrison’s government of exploiting his case for political ends.

Always a polarising character, Mr Djokovic has become the lightning rod for a vicious Australian culture war. On one side are the Melburnians still scarred by 262 days of lockdown, the most endured by any major city in the world. 

With the local vaccination rate above 90 per cent, the majority strongly support the requirement to show proof of being double-jabbed everywhere you go. They do not take kindly to the spectacle of a vastly wealthy tennis player wriggling through a loophole in the system.

But on the other side are ultra supporters of Mr Djokovic, convinced that the Serb’s situation has been deliberately politicised. How, they ask, can his presence here be a danger to public health, when Victoria alone is recording over 30,000 positive cases a day? 

Their perception is that Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, is seeking merely to make an example of a famous athlete four months out from a federal election, so that he can tout his tough border policies. When news broke that the government could still ignore Judge Kelly’s verdict and deport him regardless, they marched through the city centre en masse, waving Serbian flags and chanting: “Free Nole!”

It marked a suitably chaotic climax to a day of high farce. Even Mr Djokovic’s hearing at the Federal Circuit Court in Melbourne, intended as an earnest examination of his rights to remain in Australia, unravelled quickly into the theatre of the absurd. 

A video link capable of handling a few dozen users at most crashed under the dial-ins of a huge international audience, with dubious YouTube rip-offs of the official feed multiplying by the minute. One stream was hijacked by pranksters playing loud music and pornography.

This was far from the only slapstick on display. In one of the rare interludes when the feed was working smoothly, a member of the public forgot to press the mute button as he joined, shouting: “We’re in!” It prompted a withering rebuke from the judge. “Can I ask whoever is on screen to mute themselves,” he chided. “The only people who should be online with their microphones are those who are making submissions to the court.”

Try as he might to draw some sense from the tangled legal arguments, Judge Kelly still could not find a way around Australia’s Kafkaesque Covid rules. One of his first decisions was that Mr Djokovic, who started his day in the glorified detention facility of Carlton’s Park Hotel, should be transferred to an alternative location to follow the updates in his case. The natural choice was the office of his Melbourne solicitors, Hall & Wilcox. Just one problem – this location, like so many others in the city, operated a “no vax, no entry” policy.

Increasingly, the judge was losing patience with the nightmarish bureaucracy. When Christopher Tran, the government’s lawyer, launched into a long list of the legal precedents he would be citing, he interrupted, wearily: “Mr Tran, have you said nearly everything you want to say at this point?” Roughly translated, this meant that the court was already 54 minutes late for lunch.

On the resumption, Mr Tran was given a mere 30 minutes in which to make his case. By contrast, Mr Djokovic’s lawyers, led by Nick Wood of Svensson Barristers, had been allowed over three hours. It was a fair sign that Judge Kelly was leaning towards Mr Djokovic’s position, not least when he said: “The point I am somewhat agitated about is what more could this man have done?”

At 5.16pm, the outcome was settled, with the judge demanding not only Mr Djokovic’s immediate release from detention on the grounds that his visa had been revoked unreasonably, but also for the government to pay his legal costs. It seemed, for a moment, like a neat resolution to a fiendish saga. But little in this story is quite as it seems – soon enough, the Djokovic family briefed that Novak had been rearrested, a story given credence by the sight of federal police in white vans entering the car park beneath his lawyers’ Collins Street office.

I’m pleased and grateful that the Judge overturned my visa cancellation. Despite all that has happened,I want to stay and try to compete @AustralianOpen
I remain focused on that. I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans. 👇 pic.twitter.com/iJVbMfQ037

— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) January 10, 2022

For now, as the government agonises over whether to stick or twist, Mr Djokovic has his liberty. By midnight, he was back practising under the floodlights on Rod Laver Arena, a nine-time Australian Open champion restored to his natural habitat. 

He smiled dutifully for the cameras, but there was little disguising the trauma of his ordeal. Will he stay? The tournament organisers must surely hope so, as searches for tickets reach record levels in the wake of this scarcely credible episode. 

Inadvertently, Mr Djokovic has turned tennis, sometimes a sport of cloying niceties, into the most gripping soap opera in town.

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