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It was ugly and embarrassing, and the Djokovic saga only ever had one possible ending

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/01/2022 Malcolm Farr
Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

Scott Morrison kept Novak Djokovic waiting nine days for the ultimate and inevitable decision to tear up his visa, no doubt ensuring the Serb suffered further for causing trouble the government struggled to handle.

The Djokovic visa snub was released in time for the main TV news bulletins on Friday and, they had hoped, late enough to limit the tennis champ’s lawyers chances of getting a judge to re-hear his case.

While that hope proved unfounded, the government believes a court could only examine the probity of immigration minister Alex Hawke’s use of his power to withdraw a visa, not whether Djokovic deserved to be punted.

Related: What more could Novak Djokovic have done? Get vaccinated, isolate and get the facts right | Paul Karp

However, the damage to Australian tourism and Australian sport caused by a single, stubborn tennis player and a hesitant federal government could require a formal inquiry to sort out.

The government might further explain how Djokovic obtained a visa in the first place, and Tennis Australia might tell sport fans why it welcomed a player – admittedly the best in the world – without insisting he comply with vaccination requirements, or without closely examining his claim for an exemption.

The long wait for Hawke’s announcement was an indication the government wanted to get the visa matter right, something it might have considered more rigorously several weeks ago when the Djokovic problem poked over the horizon.

Morrison has had to juggle complex factors involving big sport, inflamed diplomatic contacts, and his self-burnished record as being untiringly vigilant on Australian borders.

The Djokovic furore appeared to overwhelm the government, with as many as four ministers involved in its resolution. They were home affairs minister Karen Andrews, immigration minister Alex Hawke, foreign minister Marise Payne, and Morrison himself.

While the decision was almost a certainty, the government’s handling of the circumstances around it was not pretty.


Video: Immigration lawyer on 'unfair' Djokovic treatment (PA Media)

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Morrison had not seen the bother the world’s best tennis player, and prominent Covid vaccination resister, would cause by coming to the Australian Open in Melbourne without the precautions demanded by the Australian government.

When on 5 January the reality of the open secret hit the prime minister’s awareness, Morrison stumbled over who had to deal with the controversy, reverting to his standard practice of blaming others.

“Well, that is a matter for the Victorian government. They have provided him with an exemption to come to Australia, and so we then act in accordance with that decision,” he told a press conference that day.

The inevitability of Friday’s decision was based on the political and policy priorities the government has placed on “border protection”.

This was reinforced by Hawke in the final line in his statement.

“The Morrison government is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

At a press conference on Wednesday Morrison laid out the grounds for kicking out Djokovic. He didn’t name the tennis star but the nudge-nudge, wink-wink was neon lit.

“That individual has to show that they’re double vaccinated or must provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. That is the policy. That policy hasn’t changed,” he said in part about a hypothetical overseas visitor since 15 December.

The inevitability also was a product of the fact Morrison had the villain he needed to resolve the mess.

It was Djokovic himself who on Wednesday self-identified as a wrongdoer – once by accident and once by deliberate neglect – and thus qualified as a candidate for expulsion.

Naughty Novak confirmed he had mixed with others, specifically a journalist, when he should have been isolating after a 16 December positive Covid test. And he regretted his support team accidentally ticked the wrong box on Australian entry papers. He has apologised for both mistakes.

But he wasn’t prepared to go quietly. And certainly he had no plans to go get vaccinated, despite the demand by Victorian premier Dan Andrews, Senator Jacqui Lambie and a cranky range of talkback radio callers.

Morrison will not show gratitude for the admissions, but they have rescued the prime minister from a performance that was testing his talents at a time when the Covid wave was straining those talents in another direction.

A small opinion survey by Utting Research found just over 50% of voters wanted Djokovic out, with 31% wanting him to stay.

Those anti-Djokovic voices would have been loud and clear to Morrison as he hoped to drown out angry appraisals of his management of Covid testing measures.

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