By Oliver Brown, writing for the UK Telegraph
This tournament is much bigger than any one person," said Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, pressed for his take on Novak Djokovic's potential deportation. It was a neat little platitude, but sadly not true.
The world No 1's visa dramas have eclipsed all other plot-lines ahead of this year's Australian Open, to the extent that the draw was delayed by 75 minutes while prime minister Scott Morrison gave a press conference outside Parliament House in Canberra.
A statement by Morrison on Djokovic's fate would at least have brought precious clarity to the event's organisers. As it turned out, he said nothing, and a worldwide audience of anxious Djokovic fans were instead treated to detailed updates on Australia's policy on returning backpackers.
Craig Tiley, the tournament director, was thus forced to preside over the greatest absurdity of all: a draw that included a player in grave and immediate danger of being thrown out of the country.
Australia's dithering handling of this dispute is creating a situation fundamentally unfair for everyone involved. It is patently unreasonable to expect Djokovic to prepare for a potential 10th Australian Open title while the sword of Damocles is wielded over his head.
It is also deeply unhelpful for his opponent, fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic, who still does not know whether to adapt his training to face Djokovic or the scheduled stand-in, Russia's Andrey Rublev. If the ordeal drags on, he could even face a 'lucky loser' qualifier.
Most of all, it is casting an ominous shadow over the event more broadly, with every other player certain to be interrogated over the coming days for their views on Djokovic's treatment. Some are hardly shy in offering a verdict, not least Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas, who accused Djokovic on Friday of making his vaccinated rivals "look like fools" and of "playing by his own rules". But the majority will be hesitant about wading into an increasingly poisonous subject.
Until Djokovic's participation is confirmed one way or the other, with the debate over his right to enter Australia as an unvaccinated player now extending to an eighth day, the tournament will remain in an embarrassing state of limbo.
"Respected international journalists are now calling it a 'temporary' Australian Open draw," lamented Paul McNamee, who ran this event for 12 years. "Knowing the enormous contributions by so many over the years, I have to say I don't like our grand slam being subject to ridicule."
Then again, certain decisions around this Australian Open do invite derision. Take, for example, the announcement that crowds will be capped at 50 per cent in response to the omicron surge across Victoria.
On the surface, this is represented as a public health imperative: a questionable one, given that the state's high caseloads are yet to translate into any unmanageable strain on the health system.
"It is a relatively small number of people who are gravely ill," Andrews said this week. Plus, the 50 per cent rule applies only to tickets still to be bought, which makes even less sense, considering several sessions are already close to sold-out.
It is difficult to shake the sense that the 2022 Australian Open is falling prey to elaborate Covid theatre.
Even though the genie is out of the bottle, with over 40,000 positive cases in Victoria each day, workers at Melbourne Park are still required to complete lateral flow tests every 24 hours and to dispense cloth masks in favour of the tighter-fitting KN95 variety.
Then there is the issue at the heart of the Djokovic case: the relentless checking of vaccination status. The Covid passport scheme is everywhere here, from cafes to car parks. Melbourne has embraced the checking of one's papers as enthusiastically as 1980s East Germany.
How can such excesses be reconciled with Australia's stated philosophy of "living with Covid"? The reality is that the country will struggle to live with the virus until it relaxes its pathological fear and loathing of the unvaccinated.
Djokovic arrives here at a tense, awkward time, with many demonising him as a potential super-spreader. And yet in a city awash with omicron, and whose population is 93 percent double-jabbed, it is hard to see how his presence affects Melbourne's risk profile one iota. Ultimately, he is being shunned for his failure to conform.
Alex Hawke, Australia's immigration minister, is keeping Djokovic in agonising suspense as he builds his case. One wonders, though, how much of a case there is left to build.
Yes, it is indefensible that Djokovic admitted this week to conducting an interview with a French journalist while knowingly Covid-positive, but it is essentially irrelevant, since the transgression took place in Serbia, not Australia.
Hawke and the government he represents need to bring the curtain down on this shabby pantomime, and fast. For the more they vacillate, the more they undermine the centrepiece of Australia's sporting summer.