Whatever happens next in the melodrama that is Novak Djokovic's attempt to become the world's most successful men's tennis player, two things are clear: he will take that title soon; just as clearly, he'll never be celebrated as such by most people.
The Serb's use of a supposed medical exemption to enter the Australian Open unvaccinated resulted in stoppage at the border, a revoked visa, detention and lockdown at a hotel for refugees/asylum seekers – plus a PR stunt by an Orthodox priest refused entry to see the Serb to somehow celebrate Orthodox Christmas.
A win at the Aussie Open would have propelled Djokovic to the top of the charts in terms of grand slam titles – 21, ahead of the 20 won by both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
But that's it. That's all he'll win. Djokovic's Australian Open saga will further taint a career coloured by his actions and opinions during the Covid era.
He will be remembered as a great on the court – and that is meant as a genuine compliment. Even tied with Nadal and Federer, he has to be recognised as the greatest all-round player in history, winning multiple titles across all four grand slam events. The French Open – the hardest to win for those not raised on or partial to clay courts – has been won twice by Djokovic; few men have won more. He leads the head-to-head clashes with Nadal (30-28; 10-7 in majors) and Federer (27-23; 11-6 in grand slams).
But he may never be counted a great on other score sheets – the human, emotional kind. There was still room for him to win hearts and minds (he struggles to win fan followings like those of Nadal and Federer) but his Covid machinations have put paid to that.
At this stage, I should declare myself: triple-vaxxed and a firm believer in those who haven't been vaccinated getting the short, sharp end of the stick now. Anti-vaxxers witter on about freedom of choice. Yeah? My choice is to stay safe - those not vaccinated endanger the rest and should be treated as such. Those who haven't come down with the virus have largely done so because the rest of us are vaccinated, diluting the spread.
Djokovic has a genuinely-held regard for alternative and natural medicine. However, there is a lunatic fringe to which he has skirted perilously close. His Adria tennis tour in 2020, held in defiance of the virus, ended up doing what everyone else foresaw: several players with Covid-19 (including Djokovic and wife Jelena), leading to the tour being called off.
Djokovic said in 2020: "Personally I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn't want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine to be able to travel."
In a live Instagram chat later that year, he and real estate and hedge funds dealer-turned "wellness" guru, Chervin Jafarieh, discussed all sorts of oddball stuff surrounding nutrition, organ functions and metabolic processes. Among them was how the power of prayer could make "toxic" food and water healthier.
"Because water reacts and scientists have proven that, that molecules in the water react to our emotions, to what is being said," Djokovic claimed, giving Jafarieh the benefit of his 7 million Instagram followers. Jelena's Instagram account, meanwhile, had a "false information" tag added to a post after she shared a conspiracy video about 5G causing coronavirus, according to Britain's Daily Express.
But never mind all that, even though people die because of this virus – an incontrovertible fact even the most wild-eyed, foam-lipped anti-vaxxers cannot dispute.
Here's what a real world-leading sportsperson would have done had they been in Djokovic's shoes re the Aussie Open. Make your anti-vaccination stance known, even if it is unpopular, and make it clear you are giving up your shot at the title – and at becoming the greatest tennis player in history – because of principle and respect for what Australia has been through.
Don't sidle into the country ducking questions about your vaccination status, waving a dodgy-looking exemption granted by tennis authorities who should know better, who also look conspicuously stupid and who may have misled players, including Djokovic, about entry requirements.
However, the rules for entering Australia are perfectly clear and those now feeling a bit sorry for the Serb in this soap opera must see that he brought most of the soap; a situation of his own making – selfishness and entitlement, now seeking victim status.
Djokovic could have been in compelling company. Muhammad Ali rejected the draft in 1967, refusing to fight in Vietnam. He endured national hostility, lost his title and his passport, was banned from fighting in the US and handed a US$10,000 fine and a five-year (suspended) prison sentence. It cost him three years out of the ring, returning in 1970 to resume the Ali legacy.
Ali changed not only the sport; he helped change world views on race and war. Djokovic isn't changing anything – except, perhaps, hardening global opinion on anti-vaxxers and making people like me cheer for someone else.
The Serb is 34, but clearly has more left in the tank than either Nadal (35) or Federer (40). He will win the most grand slam titles ever. But he may never win hearts and, if he is not careful, respect.