It was a fittingly poor conclusion to a tournament that risked being cancelled, run to ground, or even rendered stillborn. The tennis world number one, Novak Djokovic, had captured his eighteenth grand slam against would-be usurper Daniil Medvedev, whose winning streak of twenty matches was conclusively blotted. The victory was achieved before a crowd filled with vocal Serbian supporters, flags fluttering, a number sporting the šubara, a rather odd thing to wear given the warm temperature (symbolism will resist climate) and the šajkača cap with insignia associated with the Chetnik irregulars who fought in the Second World War under the monarchist banner.
With sport, history, and battle motifs entangled, supporters awaited, impatiently, for their hero to take the cup. The necessary formalities had to be settled. Tennis Australia president Jayne Hrdlicka gave an unremarkable speech, and felt it necessary to mention the difficulties that had come with staging the tournament. “It’s been a time of heartfelt challenge. It’s been a time of deep loss and extraordinary sacrifice for everyone.” But there was some reason to cheer. “With vaccinations on the way, rolling out in many countries around the world, it’s now a time for optimism and hope for the future.”
Boos, hissing and jeering followed. These were also repeated when thanks was offered to the Victorian government. Having endured a 112-day hard lockdown with strict limits on movement last year, and a snap five-day lockdown that also ate into the tournament schedule, many of the spectators were weary and disgruntled. Hrdlicka was diplomatic. “You are a very opinionated group of people.”
Novak’s own reaction was one of ginger caution, tiptoeing through a potential minefield. The AO, he concluded in his speech, was a tournament of various feelings coloured by the quarantine experience of players, their training facilities (or lack of), and the mental adjustments of playing to empty stands. “There are a lot of mixed feelings about what happened in the last month or so, with tennis players coming to Australia.”
He had to concede, despite initial reservations, that the report card of the organisers merited a high grade. “But I think when we draw the line in the end it was a successful tournament for organisers … it wasn’t easy, it was very challenging on many different levels, but they should be proud.”
As a cipher of sentiment among tennis players, and a nationalist symbol for his country, Djokovic’s words and actions receive extra magnification. Good intentions can be misconstrued; heartfelt notions are mocked for their cock-eyed naiveté. Supporters await cues on what sort of conduct to emulate: What changes to his diet will be made, and which foods will he endorse or condemn? His politics is scrutinised, his world view deconstructed and interpreted.
With 72 players being placed in hard quarantine on arriving in Australia prior to the tournament, Djokovic was derided for listing six demands made by players to make conditions less stringent. These included reduced periods of isolation, improved food and the movement of players to private housing with appropriate tennis courts. “Djokovic,” tweeted the reliably temperamental Nick Kyrgios, ranked 47 in the world, “is a tool.” The brats had spoken, and the Serbian player took the fall.
The case with vaccines was particularly salient. Djokovic’s reported opposition to vaccinations has become something of a millstone. In a nightmarish year which saw his efforts to keep the pulse of tennis going during a pandemic with the Adria tour in the Balkans, Djokovic became a figure to be admired and reviled in the coronavirus wars. The tennis event held in Serbia and Croatia in June saw Djokovic, other players and staff, contract COVID-19. Social distancing measures were ignored. As a consequence, the tournament was abandoned. As he explained in the aftermath of the disaster, the tournament had been organised “with the right intentions.” There were “steps that could have been done differently, but am I going to be then forever blamed for doing a mistake?”
As for vaccines, Djokovic attempted to shuffle his position for the New York Times in August last year. His opposition to jabs had been “taken out of context a little bit”. The issue he had was with “someone forcing me to put something in my body. That I don’t want. For me that’s unacceptable.” Djokovic professed to not being “against vaccination of any kind, because who am I to speak about vaccines when there are people that have been in the field of medicine and saving lives around the world?”
The reaction from the tennis punditry and press corps to the irate spectators proved savage. Stuart Fraser of The Times was impressed by the successful conclusion of the Australian Open. “But between players giving tournament director Craig Tiley ‘significant abuse’ and spectators booing the mention of vaccines at the trophy ceremony, it really has brought out some morons.” George Bellshaw of Metro called it “bonkers” while Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times kept his reaction raw: “It was a weird-ass five weeks in Australia, tennis.”
The Daily Mail Australia thought it could offer a deeper insight. “Rowdy Australian fans were not booing the coronavirus vaccine rollout, but were instead protesting Melbourne’s three lockdowns.” The Mail can never be accused of being anthropologically sharp and did not disappoint with its observation that the “boos” were “few” and “were eventually drowned out by cheers and applause.” Federal Senator Matt Canavan thought it traditional that Australians at sporting tournaments “boo politicians”. It only took a few for others to “join in and that is mob behaviour”. Those in the crowd were “just having a bit of fun.” So much for the profound analysis.
At stake here is a more complex picture for Australian authorities at both the state and federal level. Ill-tempered views and suspicions about vaccination exist, though these are impossible to measure with certainty. Within the patchwork multi-ethnic country, sceptics and rumours circulate, questioning government intentions and competence. Protests against the impending vaccine rollout have taken place. A greater challenge than hosting a successful international tennis tournament awaits.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org