Novak Djokovic faces battle to win over Australian fans after permission to return | Tumaini Carayol

During the early days of January this year, in the heat of the Australian summer, the streets of Melbourne’s central business district had descended into brief, surreal chaos. People sat across the pavement, groaning as they furiously rubbed their faces. Puddles of milk were scattered across the street after people had rushed through the adjacent 7/11 on Collins Street, emptying the contents of whole cartons on burning eyes.

After spending their days dancing and protesting outside the immigration detention facility where Novak Djokovic had been held because of his unvaccinated status upon his arrival in Australia, a group of his supporters descended on his lawyer’s office. When they surrounded a car that they thought contained Djokovic, bringing it to a halt as some even stood on top of it, the police fired teargas. Those who did not turn away quickly enough soon hit the ground.

One year on from the pandemonium, there will be no repeat of those chaotic scenes, no further sightings of Nigel Farage embraced by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade. Djokovic will soon be able to walk the streets of Melbourne again of his own volition. After being deported from Australia in January, which led to an automatic three-year ban from applying for a visa, on Tuesday Guardian Australia reported that the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, will overturn the ban and allow him to compete at the 2023 Australian Open.

It may mark the beginning of the end to one of the most bizarre periods in the career of any top player. In addition to his deportation, Djokovic’s steadfast refusal to be vaccinated against Covid also meant he was not allowed to enter the United States for the US Open and other tournaments there.

Djokovic spent the early part of this year in poor form as he digested the events in Melbourne and he has missed large chunks of the season, but he has also won Wimbledon and three other tournaments this year, qualifying for the ATP Finals despite his limited schedule. He began his ATP Finals campaign in Turin on Monday with a straight-sets win over Stefanos Tsitsipas, the second seed, and he is the clear favourite. At 35, he is still considered by many to be the best player in the world.

The deportation from Australia was particularly symbolic because of what the city has meant to his career. The Australian Open was the site of Djokovic’s first grand slam title in 2008 and where he has won nine titles, his most successful major tournament. He will return to Melbourne uncertain of how the crowds and public will receive him in a country that looks to rule-abiding as a national sport. Given it was his lack of tact when he announced on Instagram that he was travelling to Australia that initiated this episode, it will be fascinating to see how Djokovic handles his return.

Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon in July 2022, one of only two majors he was allowed to compete in. Photograph: Rob Newell/CameraSport/Getty Images

This could potentially also lead to a significant moment in tennis history. Last year, Djokovic arrived at the Australian border seeking his record 21st grand slam title, yet the event ended, incredibly, with Nadal snatching the men’s all-time record for himself. Djokovic will likely return as the favourite in 2023 as he seeks to equal Nadal’s men’s record of 22.

Many things have changed this year, including the election of a new Australian government. Anthony Albanese’s party inherited a situation it had no hand in creating. In such a divisive issue, any decision it came to about Djokovic’s visa was likely to lead to criticism.

But the choice to reverse Djokovic’s visa should provoke further, far more important questions. He was not the only person being held in the Melbourne immigration detention facility. When his supporters went home, human rights activists remained for the refugees who had not moved an inch. Djokovic’s presence there inadvertently underlined the cruelty of the Australian immigration system and its treatment of refugees who were held there, subjected to dire conditions and unable to leave, sometimes for many years.

Djokovic is famous and wealthy, and like many famous and wealthy people he has been shown grace. But for so long, the Australian government has pursued border policies that treat refugees and asylum seekers starkly differently, the point of its harsh laws being that its cruelty serves as a deterrent.

They should afford similar grace to those who arrive on their shores with far more at stake – their lives – than whether they will be present to hit a few tennis balls over a net.

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