Tennis player Novak Djokovic playing at Queens in 2018

Currently stuck in an immigration detention hotel in Australia, and facing deportation, tennis superstar Novak Djokovic is at the centre of an immigration battle. So, should he be allowed to stay in Australia? Let’s talk about it on this episode of Thinking in English!!

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Vocabulary List

Saga (n) – a long complicated series of related, usually negative, events

It was just another episode in the ongoing saga of their marriage problems

Up in the air (phrase) – if a matter is up in the air, it is uncertain, often because other matters have to be decided first

The whole future of the project is still up in the air

Exemption (n) – special permission not to do or pay something

Religions qualify for tax exemptions on their income

To indicate (v) – to show, point, or make clear in another way

She indicated to me that she was unhappy

To adopt (v) – to accept or start to use something new

The new tax would force companies to adopt energy-saving measures

Immune (adj) – protected against a particular disease by particular substances in the blood

Most people who’ve had chickenpox once are immune to it for the rest of their lives

To revoke (v) – to say officially that an agreement, permission, a law, etc. is no longer in effect

The authorities have revoked their original decision to allow the building of a new department store

Loophole (n) – a small mistake in an agreement or law that gives someone the chance to avoid having to do something

He used a loophole in the immigration law to stay in the USA

Notice (n) – information or a warning given about something that is going to happen in the future

The building is closed until further notice

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International news over the past week has been dominated by the saga of Novak Djokovic. The Serbian tennis player, currently ranked Number 1 in the world, travelled to Australia last Wednesday in order to defend his Australian Open championship. In fact, victory would be a men’s record of 21 major championships. Right now, it is up in the air whether he will get that chance.

Shortly after arriving at the airport in Australia, Djokovic was told his visa would be cancelled and he would need to leave the country. The tournament has a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all players, officials, and coaches entering the country – but Djokovic has regularly spoken out against vaccines and has not been vaccinated.

It seemed highly unlikely that the player would get the opportunity to defend his Australian title, with his father stating on Serbian television in November that Novak “probably won’t” play in the Australian open. Then last week, somewhat surprisingly, Djokovic posted a picture on Twitter showing him about to get on the plane to Australia.

How was this possible? People in Australia, and around the world, were curious, concerned, and angry. Australia has some of the strictest immigration and COVID-19 prevention rules in the world: in fact, most foreigners have been banned from entering Australia since early 2020. Tennis players were allowed to enter the country to compete in major events using a “temporary activity” visa. However, this was on the condition that they were fully vaccinated against the virus or had a valid medical exemption.

Novak Djokovic, COVID-19, and Conspiracy Theories

Novak Djokovic has not been vaccinated against COVID – we now know this for certain due to court documents. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Djokovic has been consistently criticised for his attitude, views, and perspective on the virus and medicine. In April 2020, almost a year before vaccines were rolled out internationally, Djokovic was already indicating his dislike for vaccines – he stated on Facebook at the time, “Personally I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,”  

In June 2020, he organised his own tennis competition called the Adria tour which was held across Serbia and Croatia. There were no social distancing and virus prevention measures – and, of course, the result was numerous players contracting COVID and the tournament eventually being cancelled. Furthermore, his wife Jelena has shared videos and social media posts promoting conspiracy theories on the origins and causes of the pandemic. 

Djokovic has long had an interest in alternative healing, and has often voiced his scepticism of modern medicine. He believes in telekinesis and telepathy (mind control techniques). He adopted a gluten free diet after his nutritionist Igor Cetojevic placed a slice of bread on his stomach and Djokovic felt weaker (this is true – it is in his own book Serve to Win). In 2018, he fell out with his former coach Andre Agassi after refusing to get surgery on a serious elbow injury, and instead trying to heal it using alternative medicine. Of course, he had to get surgery eventually.  

Why was Djokovic Allowed to Travel to Australia?

So, if Djokovic was not vaccinated, he must have been given a medical exemption to travel to Australia. And, according to Tennis Australia, the exemption application process was anonymous and overseen by an independent medical body. Usually, medical exemptions are only given to people with severe allergies or with illnesses that compromise their immune systems.

Djokovic was given an exemption due to recently contracting COVID-19. After testing positive in December, the second time in six months, it is believed that he was allowed in due to being effectively immune to COVID. Despite this, Djokovic has refused to reveal any details of his visa application and medical exemption. 

However, it emerged last week that while this exemption was enough for the tournament organisers and the Australian state of Victoria, it did not satisfy Australia’s federal government. After being questioned at the airport for around eight hours, Djokovic’s visa was revoked and he was faced with deportation. Apparently, under federal Australian law, prior infection with COVID-19 is not a valid reason to enter the country without being vaccinated. In the words of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “All I can say is that the evidence for medical exemption that was provided was found to be insufficient.”

Djokovic was moved to a holding zone to be deported, then on to an immigration detention hotel. His team immediately challenged the immigration decision and on Monday 10th January the Australian court will decide what happens to him. To tell the truth, I am writing this episode on Monday 10th January and it is quite likely you will know the outcome of the court case by the time you listen to the podcast or read the blog.

The legal outcome is probably not too important – even if Djokovic wins the court case it is likely the government will appeal and he still won’t be able to play in the Australian open. However, the question of  whether or not Djokovic should be allowed to stay in Australia is a divisive and ethical problem. 

Should Djokovic be Allowed to Stay in Australia?

Many Australian citizens have expressed anger that Djokovic was ever granted a medical exemption. Thousands of Australians remain stranded overseas due to high plane ticket prices, limited seats, and strict quarantine measures. There are numerous cases of Australians not being able to travel within their own country due to State lockdowns. In some places, you need a vaccine to go to cafes or restaurants. The population is now about 90% vaccinated, and there is criticism of why Djokovic has been given special treatment. 

Is it because of his importance to the tennis tournament and high profile name? Before the tournament the Victoria state Deputy Premier James Merlino said medical exemptions would not be “a loophole for privileged tennis players” and would only be possible in “exceptional circumstances if you have an acute medical condition.” Not being vaccinated because you caught COVID a few weeks ago is clearly not a good reason. 

On the other hand, the country of Serbia and Djokovic’s fans have been quick to support him. There have been people outside of his detention hotel since last week, singing songs and trying to demonstrate their love of the tennis player. The Serbian president has publicly stated that “The whole of Serbia is with him and … our authorities are undertaking all measures in order that maltreatment of the world’s best tennis player ends as soon as possible… In line with all standards of international public law, Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic, justice and truth.”

I think the two sides in this debate are arguing slightly different questions. Novak Djokovic is unvaccinated, and probably should never have been granted a medical exemption in the first place. For this reason, I believe he shouldn’t have been allowed to travel to Australia. 

However, this is not the current question! He was allowed to travel to Australia, and he was granted a medical exemption, before it was cancelled at the airport. The question now is “should he be allowed to stay in Australia?” which is a different problem. Djokovic was granted medical exemptions from two different bodies, he was given a visa, and he received a letter from the Australian Department of Home Affairs saying his travel declaration had been assessed and he was allowed to travel quarantine free. If he lied, or gave false information, then of course he should be deported. Yet if he told the truth and provided evidence, then the government must explain why they changed their mind.

Furthermore, Djokovic’s lawyers will also argue that he was treated incorrectly while at the airport. In order to legally cancel a visa, the immigration officials had to give proper notice to Djokovic, tell him what law he had broken, and give him adequate time to reply to the accusations. However, it turns out that the officials never actually told Djokovic why his visa was being cancelled so he was unaware of the problems with his visa.

Officials also pressured him to agree to the visa cancellation before he could talk to his lawyers. It was 4am when he was told his visa would be cancelled, so the tennis player requested to wait until 8am when he could talk to lawyers and the tournament organisers. If Djokovic can prove he was treated unfairly, then there is a chance he could be allowed to stay. 

Final Thought

This episode of Thinking in English has focused on the saga of tennis superstar Novak Djokovic. Djokovic’s controversial anti-vaccination stance has left him at the centre of an international news story. On the verge of being deported from Australia, the world is divided on whether he should be allowed to stay in Australia. 

On the one hand, the rules are clear. To enter Australia, and to play in the Australian open, you need to be fully vaccinated or have a valid medical exemption. Djokovic apparently is neither. On the other hand, he was given an exemption, allowed to travel, and then the government apparently changed their mind. 

What do you think? Should Djokovic be allowed to stay in Australia?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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