The tennis great is a victim of pandemic-era stupidity
The greatest tennis player of all time, Novak Djokovic, is once again being victimised by pandemic-era stupidity.
On Thursday, news broke that Djokovic would not be allowed to compete in this year’s US Open, a tournament he has won three times and in which he would likely be the favourite if he were allowed to play. The reason, of course, is the same one that led him to be deported from Australia this January just before the start of the Australian Open — Djokovic is unvaccinated, and therefore is not allowed to enter the United States, despite having natural immunity from two prior Covid infections.
It’s hard to overstate the pointlessness of US policy here. Djokovic freely competed in the 2021 US Open last August and September, when vaccines were already widely available. At that time, the CDC was still refusing to acknowledge natural immunity, fans had to display proof of vaccination to attend the tournament, and over 1,000 Americans were dying every day with the virus. Today, the CDC’s Covid prevention recommendations “no longer differentiate based on a person’s vaccination status” due to breakthrough infections and natural immunity, the tournament has dropped its vaccine mandate for fans and daily deaths are under 500 nationwide. To make matters even more absurd, the US does not require illegal immigrants to be vaccinated to enter the country, and it does not demand they be vaccinated once they are in.
About the only rationale that Djokovic’s critics can come up with is that it’s his choice not to follow the rules like everyone else, which is true. But demanding that people follow arbitrary rules, just because they are the rules, breeds contempt for the rules and those who make and enforce them. “Because I said so” might be a good enough explanation for a recalcitrant toddler, but it is no way to govern a nominally free country. And it is a shame for tennis fans that these considerations, rather than on-court performance, are likely to decide the outcome of one of the greatest competitions in sport, the all-time Grand Slam race between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
I wrote in January that the Australian government’s decision to deport Djokovic was political theatre that served no public health rationale. Australia then dropped all vaccine entry requirements for foreign travellers five months after sending the Serb packing. But at least the Australians had some rationale. At the time, they were still clinging to their “zero-Covid” strategy amid the rising Omicron wave, and the government of PM Scott Morrison feared the wrath of citizens who had been subjected to some of the most draconian mitigation policies in the Western world.
The US entry ban on unvaccinated travellers, by contrast, is purely a zombie policy, one that reflects neither current CDC guidance nor the reality of life in America outside elite college campuses. There is no constituency for refusing Djokovic entry — relatively few Americans even watch tennis. There is only the inertia of an administration that has given up on enforcing virtually any Covid measures and yet, having previously aligned itself with the most hysterical voices in the public health establishment, is incapable of declaring the pandemic over and moving on.
The American tennis legend John McEnroe recently described the situation as “a joke”. For once, the usually foul-mouthed player was being too kind.