Sonia O’Sullivan: I think in his heart Djokovic believes he has done no wrong

Not just a fighter on the tennis court, player was also willing to fight his corner in court

Supporters of   Novak Djokovic dance and celebrate outside the offices of his legal team in Melbourne. Photograph: Patrick Hamilton/AFP

Supporters of Novak Djokovic dance and celebrate outside the offices of his legal team in Melbourne. Photograph: Patrick Hamilton/AFP

 

From Portland, Oregon, to London, from London to Cork, from Cork to Melbourne, from Melbourne to Los Angeles. It feels like I’ve been around the world in 40 days, and that’s before I start making my way back again.

What seemed impossible for so many over the past two years is gradually opening back up, just not with the same old ease and carefree attitudes typically there before.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re going: the introduction of different Covid-19 protocols for entry to different countries has led to confusion and frustration and in some cases conflict, with most travellers turning up at the airport fearing some of their paperwork will be missing.

For me, it all began in July 2020 when first seeking permission to leave Australia and return to Ireland. Even though I have an Irish and Australian passport, when I’m in Australia, I’m treated as an Australian. So I gathered as much paperwork as I could to give every reason why I needed to leave the country, the deciding factor back then was if you had no plan to return within three months, due to the limited arrivals allowed each day in each city, and the hotel quarantine availability.

Still, as you wait in line, there’s a real sense of tension. Sometimes it can purely depend on the person who greets you at the passport inspection counter.

It all came to a head again last week in Australia, when setting out on a return trip to Ireland, well ahead of the annual Cobh 10 mile road race at the beginning of April, via a training camp in Los Angeles with the Nike training group, recently renamed the Union Athletic Club.

Hectic

It got a bit hectic, running around on the final day ensuring I had a negative Covid-19 test within one day of leaving Australia, then realising it was probably a good idea to get boosted before getting on the plane. My feeling was if I was going to have any negative effect from the booster shot, I might as well throw it all in with the travel and jet lag and get it all out of the way in one go, then have a few quiet days before getting back to the normal busy routine.

While driving around Melbourne, ticking things off my to-do list, all the talk on the radio was about the imminent arrival of Novak Djokovic. The airwaves were running hot and even without all the full details, the prevailing mood was clearly not in favour of a tennis player getting an exemption to arrive unvaccinated into Australia.

You could sense and feel the anger and frustration from the Victorian people, who have endured some of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world over the past 18 months.

Even with such a multi-cultural population, the only people marching in favour of Djokovic appeared to be the local Melbourne Serbian community, with Serbian flags protesting the unfair treatment of one of their favourite sons, someone who probably thought he was a favourite in Australia having won a record nine titles.

There I was, sitting on the runway ready for take-off, just as the flight carrying Djokovic was touching down. I was nearly sorry to be leaving, little did I know the drama that was about to unfold.

Ever since the Australian Open in 2021, which only allowed players to play after a two-week hotel quarantine, it’s been a touchy subject. It’s been a challenge, too, for all sports people trying to navigate around the world and continuing to compete. And it hasn’t all been smooth for everyone, particularly in recent times, many testing positive and having to sit out for a period of isolation until they are recovered.

There are many sceptics out there, but I think in his heart Djokovic believes he has done no wrong, is just standing up for his right to play tennis as the world number one player, having fulfilled all criteria to get himself to Melbourne on time.

There’s no doubt sport has been a lifeline for so many people during the pandemic, a livelihood for many of the athletes, and also light entertainment for so many left sitting at home on the couch. The main difference for people who have already been navigating the new system, compared with people starting to travel in recent times, is that the paperwork, which is mostly completed online, has become more of a formality and inconvenience.

Once you know what is required it’s pretty simple, but you do need to make a list and check all the boxes; vaccinated or travel exemption; negative Covid-19 test, US attestation form to confirm that all your information is accurate and correct, current ESTA or US visa in place, plus passenger locator form to hand in on arrival.

It’s hard to believe we’re still navigating various rules and regulations for entry to countries two years since the start of the pandemic. Long before Covid-19, it’s always been an intimidating experience to stand in line on arrival to the US. It did get a lot friendlier for a few years there, only with the uncertainty around travel and restrictions the defence lines are right back up again.

Determination

Waiting in line to go through US immigration, I was getting loads of messages from friends back in Australia about the latest twist in Djokovic’s arrival, held up at the airport due to his visa being revoked. His response was what you’d expect from someone of his determination and focus; he didn’t travel all that way to accept the decision and head back on the very next flight.

When you are an athlete of such stature and competitiveness, it’s just one more hurdle you are determined to clear and fight through. Not just a fighter on the tennis court, Djokovic was also willing to fight his corner in court and retain his invitation to Australia in the belief that he had fulfilled all criteria to be allowed an exemption to travel and play.

Many other athletes have faced similar hurdles over the last two years, many others I know have always stood up and carried on, never giving up when at the last-minute criteria changes. Sometimes it’s about finding a way within the rules and regulations to do what’s required, travel safely and continue with their work.

Already it seems that this year the walls and barriers are coming down. As we navigate through the latest Covid variants, the hurdles are still there, just not as high. Everyone is just about getting used to the new travel requirements and the tension is decreasing. It was never just about sports people travelling the world for work, or to provide some excitement and entertainment for so many forced to stay home over the past two years.

Right now, it’s still wintertime in California, most days more like a good Irish summer day, perfect conditions for training with the Union Athletics Club athletes escaping the Portland winter. From here, the next big stop will be the World Indoor Championships, taking place in Belgrade, Serbia in March. Novak Djokovic country.

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