Of all the candidates to gloat over Novak Djokovic's misfortune, Nick Kyrgios seemed the surest bet of all.
He has rarely passed up a chance to take drive-by shots at his Serbian nemesis, once claiming: "He has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked – I just can't stand him." And yet when presented with the open goal of Djokovic's Melbourne detention, pending a deportation hearing for allegedly failing to provide a valid medical exemption, the Australian had a surprisingly diplomatic take.
"I definitely believe in taking action – I got vaccinated for others and for my mum's health – but how we are handling Novak's situation is bad, really bad," he said. "This is one of our great champions. At the end of the day, he is human. Do better."
When even the biggest mouth in the southern hemisphere is expressing compassion for Djokovic's circumstances, it is a fair sign the Australian government has misjudged this situation horribly.
Scott Morrison, the prime minister, had reasoned that the cancellation of Djokovic's visa would be lauded globally as a reflection of Australia's uncompromising border policies, where even the world's finest tennis player was not above preferential treatment. Except the predominant reaction is now less one of cheer at his plight than of unease at how his case has become politicised.
"It's not fair," said Paul McNamee, the Australian Open's tournament director from 1995 to 2006. "Whether people like it or not, he's entitled to fair play. There's no doubt there's some disconnect between the state and the federal government. I hate to think politics are involved, but it feels that way."
McNamee's suspicions are well-founded. Djokovic is languishing in a down-at-heel Melbourne hotel, waiting to see if he will be slung out of the country in 72 hours' time, not because of Robocop-level ferocity at the border. Instead, this unholy mess has arisen from incompetence and an endless game of pass-the-buck between Tennis Australia (TA), the Victorian government and federal authorities.
At first, Morrison shrugged off the furore over TA's move to let the unvaccinated Djokovic compete, insisting it was a matter for the host state.
"They have provided him with an exemption to come to Australia, and so we act in accordance with that decision," he said.
Barely 24 hours later, Jacinta Allan, Victoria's acting premier, sent a contradictory signal: "How people get into the country is a matter for the commonwealth government, who are responsible for issuing visas."
Federal versus state: it is the tension that has defined Australia's entire pandemic response, and which now comes to a head in the painful blame game over Djokovic.
At root, this is a nation chronically over-governed. Such are the extraordinary powers handed to state premiers in the name of biosecurity, Western Australia's Mark McGowan has essentially been able to cut his state off from the rest of the federation for two years. And there is nothing Morrison can do to stop him.
The same detachment in the power structures is seen in the handling of Djokovic's case.
A month before he arrived, a letter was sent by federal health minister Greg Hunt to Tennis Australia, explaining that a history of having contracted Covid-19 in the past six months – understood to be the basis of Djokovic's exemption against being vaccinated – would not be accepted as a condition of entry into the country. But crucially, Victorian officials insist that they never saw this correspondence.
The upshot is the outrageous spectacle of Djokovic being held up as an object of worldwide ridicule. Contrary to popular belief, he did not simply pick up a boarding pass and try to brazen his way into Australia. He needed a visa and obtained one. He needed to complete a travel declaration and did so. It is purely due to bureaucrats' failures of communication that he was still allowed to board his plane, fly halfway around the world, and be greeted only with public humiliation.
But still the politicians posture. The latest to sound off at Djokovic's expense is Barnaby Joyce, Australia's deputy prime minister.
Joyce has turned his countrymen's trademark bluntness into a performance art, famously attacking Johnny Depp after the actor tried in 2015 to inveigle his two Yorkshire terriers into the country. He saw Djokovic's ordeal as a heaven-sent chance to dial up the machismo again.
"You've been graced by God with a certain talent, but that talent does not rise above the sovereign rights of other nations," he declared. "If you wander off into our country and don't tell us the truth, we're going to kick your a--- out of here."
This rhetoric plays well in a nation whose hit TV show, Border Security: Australia's Front Line, has spent 14 series glamorising the work of kicking people out.
The problem is that Djokovic is not in this grim limbo through Australia's much-vaunted hard line on immigration, but through bureaucratic ineptitude. It is no way to treat a nine-time Australian Open champion. And even Kyrgios, who normally would not hesitate to go for the jugular, feels duty-bound to call it out.