By Christmas 2021, the wheels were already in motion on a story that went well beyond tennis and into a global event that ended with the world No 1 leaving Australia under a huge cloud and facing an uncertain future in tennis.
Still l unvaccinated against Covid-19, Djokovic is set to return to Australia in the coming days after being given permission by the country’s governing powers to return and here, we look back at the mistakes made by all sides in a story that produced no winners.
There was a widespread belief that Djokovic would not take a vaccine against Covid-19 after several comments made in both press conferences and podcasts.
The Serbian’s decision not to confirm his vaccine status added fuel to the story, with Australia’s firm policy that unvaccinated travellers would not be allowed into the country set in stone.
So the stage was set for Djokovic to either take the vaccine and play at the Australian Open or apply for a medical exception to enter Melbourne.
DJOKOVIC’S BIG MISTAKES
What came next was a concoction of Djokovic’s making.
The defending Australian Open champion had a short window after the ATP Finals and the period he needed to apply for a medical exemption to enter Australia to contract Covid and obtain medical proof he had the virus.
The timing of the week Djokovic stated he had Covid fell neatly into that window, yet it also coincided with public events in Serbia and a big media interview.
He later claimed he knew he had Covid as he did his media duties, with that level of recklessness fuelling the animosity towards him.
His other big mistake was a smiling social media message (above) confirming he had been given a medical exemption, with the mood changing among the Australian public when it appeared Djokovic was being given special treatment to enter the country.
That reaction forced Australian politicians to change their approach as they could see the mood had become toxic and their own positions were being threatened if they did not react.
What came next was a news story that ended in the most unpleasant fashion.
ANTI-DJOKOVIC SENTIMENT BUILDS
By the time Djokovic’s plane landed in Melbourne, Australian government chiefs had decided they wanted to block him.
Border police interrogated him and after Djokovic confirmed he was unvaccinated, the wheels were set in motion to block his entry to Australia.
Days in a detention center were a traumatic experience Djokovic should not have endured as he was entering the country with an exemption that had been agreed upon before he boarded a plane to Australia.
This story had become a global news event way beyond the tennis community, with the world No 1 caught in the eye of a storm.
Eventually, Djokovic’s courtroom appeals came to nothing and he was deported from Australia.
Some of the most viewed video content on Tennis365 in 2022 evolved around this story, with former British No 1 Tim Henman giving Tennis365 his verdict on the Djokovic drama.
“I can’t really paint too many scenarios where there is much of an upside here,” Henman told Tennis365, in his role as a Eurosport analyst.
“To reflect on the whole saga, I think it has been a shambles from start to finish.
“It hasn’t reflected well on Tennis Australia, the Australian Open, the state of Victoria, the Australian government, Djokovic or tennis itself.
“Leading into one of the biggest events in our sport, you want the tennis to do the talking and this has massively overshadowed that.
“From Djokovic’s point of view, it is his prerogative to have a vaccine or not.
“That’s his choice, but those choices do have consequences and he has now suffered severely as an outcome of that decision.”
WHAT CAME NEXT
Djokovic was the biggest loser in a story that ran throughout 2022.
He missed all the north American events including the US Open and four ATP 1000 events, with the sacrifice he confirmed he was prepared to make to avoid taking a Covid vaccine costing him way too much.
Djokovic would have been favourite to win the US Open if he had been allowed to compete, with his form as he won Wimbledon and the end-of-season ATP Finals confirming he is still the best player in the world when he is fit and competing at his highest level.
Had Djokovic handled himself a little differently at the back end of 2021, the animosity towards him from the sporting world as he tried to navigate a route into Australia and subsequent events without being vaccinated may have been diluted.
Yet there is no doubt he paid a brutally heavy price for his vaccine decision.
“I just think the whole thing is a mess. Not being able to play Australian and the US Open was just ridiculous,” former British No 1 Annabel Croft told Tennis365.
“Certainly by the time we got to the US Open in August, the mood had changed towards Covid around the world it was crazy that he wasn’t able to play in New York.”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Djokovic will return to Melbourne to play in the Australian Open next month with a substantial majority of Australians opposing his presence in the country.
From a tennis perspective, there is no doubt that Djokovic needs to be in the draw for every big event while he remains the ultimate champion in the game.
Yet he must look back at the events of January 2021 and reflect that it could have been handled better on so many levels.
Australian government officials take a share of the blame for encouraging Djokovic to enter the country and then changing their stance.
Australian Open chief Craig Tiley came under fire for his role in the affair at the center of the whirlwind was a tennis player who was, in many respects, innocent of the charges against him.
Only Djokovic can decide whether his decision to avoid being vaccinated against Covid was worth the chaos he endured in Australia and his absence from key tournaments in 2022.