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    The W.N.B.A. Strikes an Uneasy Silence Over Brittney Griner

    Advisers are taking a discreet approach to negotiating the Phoenix Mercury center’s release from Russian detention, putting her anguished teammates and the league in a discomfiting position.PHOENIX — When will Brittney Griner be set free?That painful question hangs over the Phoenix Mercury, just as it is likely to hang over the coming W.N.B.A. season.Last week, at a home preseason game pitting Phoenix against the Seattle Storm, hip-hop blared and gyrating dance squads revved up the crowd. When the teams took the court, the public-address system crackled with the names of some of the most well-known players in women’s basketball. Sue Bird. Breanna Stewart. Tina Charles. They were joined by the Mercury’s 39-year-old virtuoso, Diana Taurasi, who was in street clothes for the preseason game but who plans to be ready when the regular season begins Friday.Griner, the Mercury’s seven-time All-Star center, will not. Since February, she has been in Russian custody after customs officials at a Moscow area airport said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.Her glaring absence struck an awkward note. On the mammoth screen looming over the court in Phoenix, Griner’s image flashed alongside her teammates’ in promotional videos. Dozens of fans in the crowd wore Mercury jerseys emblazoned with her name and number, 42.This was the first time the Mercury had played since Griner was taken into Russian custody, yet there was no official acknowledgment of her absence by the players, no moment of silence to reckon with the collective anguish for one of the league’s most beloved performers, who is known to teammates and fans as B.G.Fans of Brittney Griner wore her national team and W.N.B.A. team jerseys.Rebecca Noble for The New York TimesThe silence is by design.The W.N.B.A. is perhaps the most progressive and outspoken American sports league. Its players have long taken public stands on issues such as race, gender equality, politics and reproductive rights. In the days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, W.N.B.A. players boycotted games. During the early, cloistered days of the pandemic, they wore black shirts that said, “Say Her Name,” referring to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman shot and killed by the police in Louisville, Ky.But with Griner detained in Russia, her whereabouts and specific details on how she is faring relayed only to an inner circle of friends, family and advisers, the league is taking a stealthier approach.Instead of raising a ruckus, the players are quiet.Instead of clamoring for change, they keep their mouths shut.They are following the lead of Griner’s advisers, who have determined it best to let behind-the-scenes diplomacy work. With Griner facing up to 10 years in prison, they have reasoned the wisest move is to keep a low profile right now. At the moment, it makes sense, the reasoning goes, not to give President Vladimir V. Putin leverage in using Griner as a bargaining chip in negotiations while his military wages war against Ukraine.“We are absolutely outspoken about everything that we can possibly be,” Mercury guard Kia Nurse, who is entering her fifth year in the W.N.B.A., said at the team’s training facility last week. “But we are also very good at admitting that we don’t know everything, and we are not the experts on every topic.”A Phoenix Mercury fan wore a T-shirt calling for Griner’s release last week.Rebecca Noble for The New York Times“We’re following the process,” Nurse said, before noting the week’s hopeful news. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that a former U.S. Marine, Trevor R. Reed, had gained his freedom in a prisoner swap after nearly three years of Russian detention.Among the Mercury players, Reed’s return delivered a fresh dose of optimism that Griner could be next.But the deal for Reed also sparked renewed calls from activists outside her camp who wonder aloud whether enough is being done to bring Griner home. Why, they ask, wasn’t she included in the swap? Why is everyone in the league remaining so circumspect? Wouldn’t loud and visible protests for Griner help pressure some action?In Phoenix, more than a few fans told me they didn’t feel Griner’s case was getting enough attention. Or that if an N.B.A. star were in Russian custody — waiting for a hearing, as Griner is, and facing a possible lengthy prison sentence, as Griner is — the calls for his release would be thunderous, insistent and nonstop.“Having her missing, it feels like we are missing a limb,” said Dacia Johnson, an ardent Mercury fan who wore a Griner jersey. “And the way the team and league remain so quiet makes it worse. There was not one word about her at the beginning of this game. I’m really upset about that.”Tina Charles, back, started at center, Griner’s position with the Mercury.Rebecca Noble for The New York TimesWhat if Devin Booker was in Russian custody, she wondered, referencing the high-scoring guard for the Phoenix Suns?“If this was Booker, and not a gay, 6-foot-9-inch Black female? If this was someone from men’s sports, I think they would have had something in his honor, even if it was a moment of silence.”Johnson seemed as emotional about Griner as the player’s teammates, who looked stricken with sadness every time I brought up Griner’s name. Still, the Mercury players stuck to the script. They spoke of how much they love B.G. How special she is. How she is like a member of their family, and constantly in their thoughts and prayers. Behind careful words was raw pain.“That’s my sister, so I love her,” said Skylar Diggins-Smith, who won gold alongside Griner at last summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. Diggins-Smith’s straightforward words were weighted as her voice quaked with frustration and anguish shone in her eyes. She continued: “I think about her every day, and I can’t wait till she gets back here with us.”We are in uncharted territory. As the season begins, the W.N.B.A. is still wrestling with ways to honor Griner that won’t hurt her cause. The league’s teams plan to expand Griner’s Heart and Sole charity, which gives shoes to those in need, beyond Phoenix. Other ideas are in consideration, too.But fans like Johnson and her girlfriend, Autumn Gardner, want boldness from the league that has come to be known for it. As the preseason game against the Storm wound toward its conclusion, a 4-point Mercury loss, Gardner did not just say Griner’s name. She yelled it. “B.G.!” she chanted, loud and insistent enough to reach down to the court. “B.G.! B.G.! B.G.!”A young fan touched a mural of Griner outside the Footprint Center in Phoenix.Rebecca Noble for The New York Times More

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    N.B.A. Basketball Returns to Chinese TV After a Long Absence

    China Central Television stopped showing the games in 2019 after a Houston Rockets executive expressed support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong.China Central Television, China’s state-run TV network, has begun to broadcast N.B.A. games again, signaling that the rift between the league and the authoritarian government that has persisted since 2019 appears to be coming to an end.The news was first reported by Global Times, a state-run Chinese media outlet, and confirmed by a spokesman for the N.B.A.The first game this year on state TV, according to Global Times, was Tuesday night’s matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Utah Jazz. According to Global Times, the broadcast was the start of a full return of the N.B.A. to China’s airwaves. The league has been almost entirely off the air on Chinese state television since 2019, except for a lone finals game in 2020. Games have been broadcasting on Tencent, a digital streaming platform based in China.“N.B.A. games have aired in China continuously for nearly 35 years, including this season on a number of other services,” Mike Bass, an N.B.A. spokesman, said in a statement on Thursday. “We believe broadcasting games to our fans in China and more than 200 other countries and territories is consistent with our mission to inspire and connect people everywhere through the game of basketball.”The league said it was informed on the day the game was played that it would be broadcast.The dispute between China and the N.B.A. began in the fall of 2019, when Daryl Morey, then an executive with the Houston Rockets, shared an image supportive of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. He posted it just as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nets were getting set to play a preseason game in China. The social media post angered the Chinese government, causing games to be pulled off the air and Chinese companies to pull sponsorships from the league.The league came under withering criticism at home from politicians all across the ideological spectrum because of what some saw as its deference to China. Morey later issued a statement saying he did not intend to cause offense and he was also rebuked by the owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta. The league issued a statement that said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s post had offended many of the N.B.A.’s “friends and fans” in China. A Chinese translation of the N.B.A.’s statement suggested that the league was apologizing to the Chinese government, further feeding domestic criticism that the N.B.A.’s response was not forceful enough in standing behind Morey.“We have always supported and will continue to support members of the N.B.A. family expressing their views on social and political issues,” Bass said in his statement on Thursday.Since Morey’s post, the N.B.A. has often become a target for criticism, particularly from elected Republicans who have assailed the league’s willingness to make money off a repressive government accused of a litany of human rights violations.It wasn’t just the response to Morey that invited detractors. In 2020, ESPN reported that there was rampant abuse of children at basketball academies in Chinese-government-run facilities co-sponsored by the N.B.A. A league spokesman recently said that the league was no longer affiliated with those academies.The broadcasting of N.B.A. games on Chinese television opens up a revenue stream of hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the league. The league’s relationship with China came under more scrutiny in recent months as Enes Kanter Freedom, an N.B.A. center most recently with the Boston Celtics, criticized the Chinese government and the league for its business interests in the country. Freedom was traded by the Celtics to the Rockets, who cut him in February.Kristen Looney, an assistant professor of Chinese politics at Georgetown, said in an interview that the Chinese government’s decision may be a result of enough time passing or a larger geopolitical calculation.“It could mean that enough time has passed that things have kind of blown over,” Looney said. “From a macro perspective, it could mean that China is trying to signal that it still wants to maintain good economic relations with the United States despite differences in opinion on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. It’s possible that China is fearful that its close relationship with Russia would have ripple effects on its economic relations with the United States and the rest of the Western world that is on the side of Ukraine.”The N.B.A. has targeted China — and its population of 1.4 billion — for roughly a half-century. China now has more fans of the league than there are in the United States, a country of 330 million. Before the pandemic, the N.B.A.’s top stars routinely traveled to the country between seasons to promote sneakers. Since 2004, the N.B.A. has played dozens of games there.Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, has steadfastly maintained the N.B.A.’s position on China, despite the critics. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Silver said he believed the league was being unfairly singled out for criticism given how many companies in the United States do business with China.“Virtually every American uses products manufactured in China,” Silver said. “And in many cases, they are the products that we are most reliant on. Our computers, our phones, our clothes. Our shoes, our kids’ toys. So then the question becomes why is the N.B.A. being singled out as the one company that should now boycott China?” More

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    Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia Is Cloaked in Silence

    Those close to Griner have said little publicly since the W.N.B.A. star was detained in Russia on Feb. 17 on drug charges. Their approach has parallels with other efforts to release Americans held overseas.The detention of the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner in Russia on drug charges has left her supporters searching for a road map to a resolution in what could be an especially dangerous situation during the war in Ukraine.An exact parallel is hard to come by, but a situation nearly five years ago, in which three U.C.L.A. basketball players were accused of crimes while in China, blended sports, international diplomacy and a desire for secrecy in a way that echoes Griner’s situation as efforts to bring her home continue quietly.“It is an extremely sensitive situation,” said Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, who said he was working with the State Department to have Griner released. He added, “What we’re trying to do now, of course, is be helpful and not do anything that’ll place Brittney in any kind of danger or make her situation worse.”Griner’s attorney in Russia contacted the U.S. Embassy shortly after she was detained on Feb. 17, Allred said, after Russian Federal Customs Service officials said they had found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Allred said the Russian authorities have denied the State Department’s request that consular officials meet with Griner.“It’s already a violation of international norms and the way these things are handled when they happen to Americans abroad,” Allred said.Griner, 31, a center for the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury, is said to be facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the drug charges. Many W.N.B.A. players supplement their salaries by playing internationally during the off-season. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014. Those close to her, and officials from the W.N.B.A. and its players’ union, have said little about Griner’s situation beyond that they support her and hope to have her return home safely.The length of her detention so far is not unusual given the charges, said Tom Firestone, an attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, who was the resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow while working for the Justice Department. Russia’s customs service said in a statement on Saturday that it had opened a criminal case into the large-scale transportation of drugs.“Russia has not had liberalization in its cannabis laws the same way we have in the United States,” Firestone said.Russian prosecutors have two months to conduct a preliminary investigation and build a case, but can receive extensions beyond that, Firestone said. Getting out on bail is difficult for people charged with narcotics offenses, and will be especially so for Griner since she is not a Russian citizen, Firestone said.“They should get consular access certainly,” Firestone said. “When an American is arrested overseas the first source of assistance from the U.S. government is the consulate at the U.S. Embassy.”What role, if any, UMMC Ekaterinburg is playing in Griner’s case is unknown, but local ties can be crucial in situations like these, as they were for the three U.C.L.A. basketball players, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, who were detained in China for shoplifting in November 2017 before a preseason game.From left, Cody Riley, LiAngelo Ball and Jalen Hill were accused of shoplifting while on a trip to China in 2017 with the U.C.L.A. men’s basketball team.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters“We were in Hangzhou, the headquarters of Alibaba, who was our host for the tournament, and they had a deep and nuanced appreciation for the local laws, customs,” said Larry Scott, who was then the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference. He added, “And it was important to take guidance from them in addition to working with U.S. government officials and others.”Ball, Hill and Riley were in custody for less than a day before being released on bail. They returned to the United States about a week later and apologized publicly for the theft.Ball, who is the brother of the N.B.A. players Lonzo and LaMelo Ball, was the most well-known of the three U.C.L.A. players. “I’d like to start off by saying sorry for stealing from the stores in China,” LiAngelo Ball said at a news conference after returning to the United States. “I’m a young man, but it’s not an excuse for making a really stupid decision.”Scott also said the remorse shown by the players was instrumental in their being allowed to return swiftly. “They were apologetic for it and expressed that,” he said. “There’s an element of saving face involved for local authorities to understand foreigners coming in respect local laws and the local culture.”It is unclear whether Griner had drugs in her luggage, and American officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining U.S. citizens for specious reasons. But those close to Griner appear to be following one of the strategies employed by those surrounding Ball, Hill and Riley in 2017: creating as little public noise as possible.Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to KnowCard 1 of 4On the ground. More

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    What We Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia

    The W.N.B.A. star was stopped at an airport outside Moscow and accused of carrying hashish oil in her luggage. But much about the case remains unclear.As tensions rose between Russia and the United States, Russian authorities detained Brittney Griner, a W.N.B.A. star, on drug charges. The Russian Federal Customs Service announced Ms. Griner’s detention on Saturday but said she was stopped at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow last month.The detention of Ms. Griner, 31, a seven-time W.N.B.A. All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury and a key figure in two champion Olympic teams, comes during an inflamed standoff between Russia and the United States over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and pulls the player in the middle of the most acute crisis between the two countries since the Cold War.Here is what we know so far about Ms. Griner’s detention.Russia is talking about potentially serious charges.The Russian Federal Customs Service said that a sniffer dog had prompted it to search the carry-on luggage of an American basketball player at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, and that it had found vape cartridges containing hashish oil. A state-owned Russian news agency then identified the player as Ms. Griner.Hashish oil is a marijuana concentrate that has a high concentration of the psychoactive chemical THC, and it is commonly sold in cartridges that are used in vape pens. The Russian Federal Customs Service said that customs officers had noticed vapes after scanning the traveler’s bag.The customs service said that a criminal case had been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, a charge that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.It released a video of a traveler who appeared to be Ms. Griner going through airport security with a trolley suitcase and a small backpack, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to be from the traveler’s suitcase.“Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism during her long tenure with USA Basketball,” U.S.A. Basketball said on Twitter.The timing of the detention remains murky. Its political implications do, too.The screening at the airport occurred in February, according to the Customs Service, raising the possibility that Ms. Griner had been in custody for at least several days. She last posted on Instagram on Feb. 5. The timing provided leaves open the possibility that the case could have been underway in secret for weeks before Russian authorities chose to draw attention to it.It is still unclear whether Russia might have targeted Ms. Griner as leverage against the United States, which has led a widespread effort to impose harsh sanctions on Russia and its elite.Citing privacy constraints, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken did not comment on the detention on Sunday at a news conference in Chisinau, Moldova, and did not respond to a question about whether Russia had announced her arrest as retaliation for the economic, military and diplomatic pressure the United States has leveled against Russia in recent days.But American officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining U.S. citizens on doubtful pretexts.“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens,” Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, wrote on Twitter on Saturday, citing the case of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine whom a Russian court sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges of violence against police officers that his family and supporters described as fraudulent.On Saturday, the State Department released an updated advisory urging American citizens to leave Russia immediately given the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials.”Ms. Griner was in Russia to play. Many W.N.B.A. stars rely on income from overseas leagues.Ms. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years during the W.N.B.A. off-season.Many American players compete with high-paying Russian teams: about 70 W.N.B.A. players have decided to play with international teams instead of resting during the off-season this year, with more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine.A W.N.B.A. spokeswoman said on Saturday that all the others had already left Russia and Ukraine.The financial incentives are compelling. W.N.B.A. players make a fraction of what their male counterparts do, with their maximum salary in 2022 at $228,094 while the top N.B.A. players are paid tens of millions of dollars.International female teams, which tend to have more government and corporate financial support than those in the W.N.B.A., can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a season, and sometimes more than $1 million.Some observers criticized the gender pay gap in American basketball in connection to Ms. Griner’s detention.The public statements are cautious, but supporters are rallying around Ms. Griner.Mr. Blinken said the State Department would “provide every possible assistance” to any American held by a foreign government.“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance,” Mr. Blinken said. “And that includes in Russia.”The W.N.B.A. said in a statement that Ms. Griner “has the W.N.B.A.’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”The Mercury also released a statement saying that they “love and support Brittney” and that their main concern was her safety, her physical and mental health and her safe return home.“Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia,” Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherelle T. Griner, posted on Instagram on Saturday, adding, “We continue to work on getting my wife home safely.”Lara Jakes More

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    Serbia’s Leader Denounces Australia’s Treatment of Djokovic as ‘Orwellian’

    In the tennis star’s homeland, even those who didn’t support his decision to remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus said that he had been mistreated.BELGRADE, Serbia — President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia blasted the Australian government on Sunday for what he called the “harassment” of Novak Djokovic, deriding the legal process that led to the tennis star’s deportation one day before the start of the Australian Open as “Orwellian” and saying that the player would be welcomed home.“I talked to Novak a while ago, and I encouraged him, and I told him that I can’t wait for him to come to Serbia and return to his country, and to be where he is always welcome,” Mr. Vucic said in a statement on the day that Mr. Djokovic left Australia after a legal dispute surrounding his coronavirus vaccination status.“They think that they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, and they actually humiliated themselves,” Mr. Vucic said.In Serbia, where Mr. Djokovic is deeply revered and widely respected as one of his country’s greatest sports stars, even those who did not support his decision to remain unvaccinated said that he had been maligned and mistreated.Dr. Predrag Kon, a member of Serbia’s pandemic response team who has been a lead voice in calling for people to get vaccinated as the rapidly spreading Omicron variant brings a new wave of infection, joined those expressing outrage.A mural of Mr. Djokovic in Belgrade, Serbia, where he is revered as one of his country’s greatest sports stars.Marko Risovic for The New York Times“I am shocked by the decision,” he wrote on Facebook. “This is by no means in the spirit of the International Health Regulations, which speak of the free movement of passengers, goods and services. I wish he never got into this situation.”Vuk Jeremic, who was Serbia’s foreign minister from 2007 to 2012 before serving as president of the United Nations General Assembly, said that Mr. Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated should be seen in the context of the region.“Unfortunately, such is the widespread opinion in most of southeast Europe, the underlying reasons being deep and to do with general distrust toward governments and institutions, after decades of terrible corruption and growing inequality,” Mr. Jeremic said.But he said that in no way justified the events as they played out.“The Australian government’s conduct toward him has been utterly disgraceful,” Mr. Jeremic said in an email sent as Mr. Djokovic’s legal team was making its arguments in court.A panel of three federal judges went on to rule that Australia’s immigration minister was within his rights to cancel the unvaccinated tennis star’s visa on the basis that the player could pose a risk to public health and order.Mr. Jeremic called the Australian government’s mantra in the case — “rules are rules” — hypocrisy.“All the other tournament participants who got the medical exemption from the same medical panel got the same visa and entered Australia without hindrance,” Mr. Jeremic said. “Novak is a victim of brinkmanship by shameless populists, exclusively driven by snap opinion polls.”Fans of Mr. Djokovic outside the Federal Court in Melbourne on Sunday after the ruling. Alana Holmberg for The New York TimesAfter revoking Mr. Djokovic’s visa a second time, all the Australian government had to do to win its legal case this weekend was show that the tennis star “may” cause harm if allowed to stay in the country despite being unvaccinated against the coronavirus.But in Serbia, the decision to kick Mr. Djokovic out of Australia was greeted with outrage. On Sunday, the headline of a leading tabloid, Kurir, captured the mood: “Shame on Australia! The biggest shame in the history of sports happened in Melbourne.”The Serbian Tennis Federation said it was a victory of politics over sports.Mr. Djokovic, in an emailed statement, said that he was “extremely disappointed” but that he respected the ruling. He left Australia on a flight to Dubai a few hours after releasing the statement, which his team said would be his last comments on the matter until the Australian Open was over.While Mr. Djokovic said he was uncomfortable with all of the attention and hoped the focus could return to tennis, there was agreement in Serbia that the matter had been handled poorly. Many believe that Mr. Djokovic would not have been treated the same way if he had come from a richer country.The tennis player’s father, Srdjan Djokovic — who is not known for understatement and who compared his son to Jesus Christ during the ordeal — broke several days of silence to repost an image on Instagram on Sunday morning.Written over pictures of his son winning trophies were the words: “The attempt to assassinate the best athlete in the world has ended, 50 bullets in Novak’s chest.”The parents and brother of Mr. Djokovic spoke to the news media in Belgrade this past week. The tennis player’s father, Srdjan Djokovic, has compared his son to Jesus Christ because of the imbroglio.Zorana Jevtic/ReutersThe imbroglio could have been avoided, Mr. Vucic said, if Australia had made it clear that the player would have to be vaccinated to enter the country and play.The Novak Djokovic Standoff With AustraliaCard 1 of 5A vaccine exemption question. More

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    Serbia's Vucic Denounces Australia’s Treatment of Novak Djokovic as ‘Orwellian’

    In the tennis star’s homeland, even those who didn’t support his decision to remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus said that he had been mistreated.BELGRADE, Serbia — President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia blasted the Australian government on Sunday for what he called the “harassment” of Novak Djokovic, deriding the legal process that led to the tennis star’s deportation one day before the start of the Australian Open as “Orwellian” and saying that the player would be welcomed home.“I talked to Novak a while ago, and I encouraged him, and I told him that I can’t wait for him to come to Serbia and return to his country, and to be where he is always welcome,” Mr. Vucic said in a statement on the day that Mr. Djokovic left Australia after a legal dispute surrounding his coronavirus vaccination status.“They think that they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, and they actually humiliated themselves,” Mr. Vucic said.In Serbia, where Mr. Djokovic is deeply revered and widely respected as one of his country’s greatest sports stars, even those who did not support his decision to remain unvaccinated said that he had been maligned and mistreated.Dr. Predrag Kon, a member of Serbia’s pandemic response team who has been a lead voice in calling for people to get vaccinated as the rapidly spreading Omicron variant brings a new wave of infection, joined those expressing outrage.A mural of Mr. Djokovic in Belgrade, Serbia, where he is revered as one of his country’s greatest sports stars.Marko Risovic for The New York Times“I am shocked by the decision,” he wrote on Facebook. “This is by no means in the spirit of the International Health Regulations, which speak of the free movement of passengers, goods and services. I wish he never got into this situation.”Vuk Jeremic, who was Serbia’s foreign minister from 2007 to 2012 before serving as president of the United Nations General Assembly, said that Mr. Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated should be seen in the context of the region.“Unfortunately, such is the widespread opinion in most of southeast Europe, the underlying reasons being deep and to do with general distrust toward governments and institutions, after decades of terrible corruption and growing inequality,” Mr. Jeremic said.But he said that in no way justified the events as they played out.“The Australian government’s conduct toward him has been utterly disgraceful,” Mr. Jeremic said in an email sent as Mr. Djokovic’s legal team was making its arguments in court.A panel of three federal judges went on to rule that Australia’s immigration minister was within his rights to cancel the unvaccinated tennis star’s visa on the basis that the player could pose a risk to public health and order.Mr. Jeremic called the Australian government’s mantra in the case — “rules are rules” — hypocrisy.“All the other tournament participants who got the medical exemption from the same medical panel got the same visa and entered Australia without hindrance,” Mr. Jeremic said. “Novak is a victim of brinkmanship by shameless populists, exclusively driven by snap opinion polls.”Fans of Mr. Djokovic outside the Federal Court in Melbourne on Sunday after the ruling. Alana Holmberg for The New York TimesAfter revoking Mr. Djokovic’s visa a second time, all the Australian government had to do to win its legal case this weekend was show that the tennis star “may” cause harm if allowed to stay in the country despite being unvaccinated against the coronavirus.But in Serbia, the decision to kick Mr. Djokovic out of Australia was greeted with outrage. On Sunday, the headline of a leading tabloid, Kurir, captured the mood: “Shame on Australia! The biggest shame in the history of sports happened in Melbourne.”The Serbian Tennis Federation said it was a victory of politics over sports.Mr. Djokovic, in an emailed statement, said that he was “extremely disappointed” but that he respected the ruling. He left Australia on a flight to Dubai a few hours after releasing the statement, which his team said would be his last comments on the matter until the Australian Open was over.While Mr. Djokovic said he was uncomfortable with all of the attention and hoped the focus could return to tennis, there was agreement in Serbia that the matter had been handled poorly. Many believe that Mr. Djokovic would not have been treated the same way if he had come from a richer country.The tennis player’s father, Srdjan Djokovic — who is not known for understatement and who compared his son to Jesus Christ during the ordeal — broke several days of silence to repost an image on Instagram on Sunday morning.Written over pictures of his son winning trophies were the words: “The attempt to assassinate the best athlete in the world has ended, 50 bullets in Novak’s chest.”The parents and brother of Mr. Djokovic spoke to the news media in Belgrade this past week. The tennis player’s father, Srdjan Djokovic, has compared his son to Jesus Christ because of the imbroglio.Zorana Jevtic/ReutersThe imbroglio could have been avoided, Mr. Vucic said, if Australia had made it clear that the player would have to be vaccinated to enter the country and play.The Novak Djokovic Standoff With AustraliaCard 1 of 5A vaccine exemption question. More

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    How the ‘Djokovic Affair’ Finally Came to an End

    Novak Djokovic lost to a government with powerful laws, determined to make an example out of him.SYDNEY, Australia — The day before the Australian Open was set to begin, Novak Djokovic, possibly the greatest tennis player of all time, ran up against a group of determined opponents that no amount of talent, training, money or willpower could overcome.He lost his final bid to stay in Australia on Sunday when a three-judge panel upheld the government’s decision to cancel his visa.More broadly, he lost to a government determined to make him a symbol of unvaccinated celebrity entitlement; to an immigration law that gives godlike authority to border enforcement; and to a public outcry, in a nation of rule-followers, over what was widely seen as Mr. Djokovic’s reckless disregard for others, after he said he had tested positive for Covid last month and met with two journalists anyway.“At this point, it’s about social norms and enforcing those norms to continue to get people to move in the same direction to overcome this pandemic,” said Brock Bastian, a social psychology professor at the University of Melbourne. “In this culture, in this country, a sense of suddenly upending those norms has a great cost politically and socially.”Only in the third exasperating year of a pandemic could the vaccination status of one individual be invested with so much meaning. For more than a week, the world gawked at a conflict centered on a controversial racket-swinger, filled with legal minutiae and dramatic ups and downs.Supporters of Novak Djokovic listened to court proceedings on Sunday outside the Australian Federal Court in Melbourne.Alana Holmberg for The New York TimesOn Sunday morning in Australia, more than 84,000 people watched the livestream of the hearing in a federal court, many of them presumably tuning in from other countries.What they witnessed was the saga’s bizarre final court scene: a six-panel video conference with lengthy arguments, in distant rooms of blond wood, about whether the immigration minister had acted rationally in exercising his power to detain and deport.The chief justice, James Allsop, announced the decision just before 6 p.m., after explaining that the court was not ruling on the merits of Mr. Djokovic’s stance, or on whether the government was correct in arguing that he might influence others to resist vaccination or defy public health orders. Rather, the court simply found that the immigration minister was within his rights to cancel the tennis star’s visa for a second time based on that possibility.Just a few days earlier, Mr. Djokovic’s lawyers had won a reprieve from his first visa cancellation, hours after his arrival on Jan. 5 at Melbourne’s airport. As of Friday morning, he seemed to be on his way to competing for a 10th Australian Open title and a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam. But that initial case had never reached beyond procedure, focusing on how Mr. Djokovic was treated at the airport as border officials had held him overnight.In the second round, his lawyers argued that the government had used faulty logic to insist their client’s presence would energize anti-vaccination groups, making him a threat to public health. In fact, they argued, anti-vaccine sentiment would be aggravated by his removal, citing protests that followed his first visa cancellation.“The minister is grasping for straws,” said Nicholas Wood, one of Mr. Djokovic’s lawyers. The alternative scenario — that deportation would empower anti-vaxxers — “was not considered,” he maintained.Journalists outside the offices of Mr. Djokovic’s legal team on Saturday. For more than a week, the world gawked at a conflict filled with legal minutiae and dramatic ups and downs.Loren Elliott/ReutersMr. Wood also disputed the government’s claim that Mr. Djokovic, 34, was a well-known promoter of vaccine opposition. The only comments cited in the government’s court filing, he said, came from April 2020, when vaccines had not yet been developed.Ever since then, his lawyers added, Mr. Djokovic had been careful to say very little about his vaccination status, which he confirmed only in his paperwork for Australia’s medical exemption.“There was no evidence before the minister that Mr. Djokovic has ever urged any others not to be vaccinated,” they wrote in a court filing before Sunday’s hearing. “Indeed, if anything, Mr. Djokovic’s conduct over time reveals a zealous protection of his own privacy rather than any advocacy.”The case, though, ultimately turned on the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, and his personal views. Justice Allsop pointed out in court that Australian immigration law provided a broad mandate: evidence can simply include the “perception and common sense” of the decision maker.Stephen Lloyd, arguing for the government, told the court it was perfectly reasonable for the immigration minister to be concerned about the influence of a “high-profile unvaccinated individual” who could have been vaccinated by now, but had not done so.He added that the concern about Mr. Djokovic’s impact went beyond vaccination, noting that Mr. Djokovic had not isolated after he said he tested positive for Covid in mid-December, meeting instead with two journalists in Belgrade. The government, Mr. Lloyd said, was worried that Australians would emulate his disregard for the standard rules of Covid safety if he were allowed to stay.Mr. Djokovic training at Melbourne Park on Friday. Many Australians believe he never should have been allowed to come without being vaccinated.Daniel Pockett/Getty Images“His connection to a cause whether he wants it or not is still present,” Mr. Lloyd said. “And his presence in Australia was seen to pose an overwhelming risk, and that’s what motivated the minister.”The court sided with the government, announcing its decision without immediately detailing its reasoning.The Novak Djokovic Standoff With AustraliaCard 1 of 5A vaccine exemption question. More

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    Novak Djokovic, a Master on the Court, Keeps Making Errors Off It

    Djokovic, the Serbian tennis star, is at the center of some of the most divisive debates of the pandemic: Individual versus community, science versus quackery.In April 2020, with the pro tennis tour suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic took part in a Facebook Live chat with some fellow Serbian athletes. During their conversation, Djokovic, famous for his punishing training regimen, abstemious diet and fondness for New Age beliefs, said he was “opposed to vaccination” and “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel.”“But if it becomes compulsory, what will happen? I will have to make a decision,” he said.More than a year and a half later, Djokovic’s decision to seek a medical exemption to the Australian Open’s vaccine requirement has become a debacle for tennis — and one of the most bizarre episodes yet served up by the pandemic. Djokovic, 34, has done potentially irreparable harm to his own image. It is a bitter twist for a player who has long craved the adoration lavished on his chief rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and it is a sad coda to what is widely considered the greatest era in the history of men’s tennis.Djokovic arrived in Australia aiming to notch a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, which would put him one ahead of Federer and Nadal and strengthen his claim to being the most accomplished men’s player of all time. Instead, he now finds himself at the center of a global controversy that turns on some of the most divisive issues raised by the pandemic, in particular the question of individual freedom versus collective responsibility.Djokovic’s refusal to capitulate to an Australian government that has sought to bar him “in the public interest” because he is unvaccinated has made him a martyr in the eyes of some right-wing populists and those who oppose vaccines, and has elicited an outpouring of rage in Serbia.While Djokovic was sequestered in a Melbourne hotel room awaiting a court hearing on his entering the country, Nigel Farage, the far-right British politician and media figure who spearheaded the Brexit campaign, was in Belgrade, Serbia, expressing solidarity with the tennis star’s family. Djokovic’s father compared his son to Jesus Christ and Spartacus and hailed him as “the leader of the free world.” In Melbourne, a raucous crowd of Djokovic supporters chanted “Novak” and clashed with the police.Fans outside the Federal Court of Australia in Melbourne on Monday showed their support for Djokovic in his visa legal battle.Sandra Sanders/ReutersAll of this is a strange turn of events for an athlete who has often been accused of trying too hard to win the world’s affection and who commands enormous respect within his sport, and not just because he has done so much winning. He’s a popular figure in the locker room, where he is seen as a strong advocate for players who are struggling financially: In 2020, he co-founded a players’ association with the stated goal of making tennis more remunerative for those down the ranks, though it’s unclear what that group has accomplished since. Djokovic also has distinguished himself with his philanthropy and with the graciousness he has shown Federer and Nadal. (“He’s a magnificent champion,” Djokovic said of Federer after beating him at Wimbledon in 2014.)In person, he is affable and engaging, with a keen interest in life beyond the baseline and a palpable sense of gratitude for his good fortune. Djokovic grew up during the Balkan wars of the 1990s — he was in Belgrade when NATO forces bombed Serbia and spent many nights huddled in the basement of his grandfather’s apartment building.Djokovic has said that the experience helped harden him into the champion he became. But it perhaps also bred a sense of imperviousness that has now led him astray.This standoff in Australia has also put a spotlight on some of the more troubling aspects of Djokovic’s public persona. He has long been a spiritual dabbler, with a weakness for what some regard as quackery. A few years ago, when Djokovic was mired in a slump, there was concern he had fallen under the sway of a Spanish tennis coach named Pepe Imaz, whose training philosophy, called Amor y Paz, or Love and Peace, emphasized meditation and group hugs. (“Human beings have infinite capacities and skills, the problem is that our mind limits us,” Imaz said on his website. “Telepathy, telekinesis, and many more things are all possible.”) In a video on YouTube, Djokovic is shown onstage with Imaz talking about the “need to be able to look inwards and to establish this connection with a divine light.”Some have questioned Djokovic’s relationship with Pepe Imaz, a Spanish tennis coach who emphasizes meditation and group hugs in his training philosophy.Gtres/Via ReutersWhen the tennis tour was on hiatus during the spring of 2020, Djokovic did several Instagram chats with the wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh. During one of their conversations, Djokovic claimed that the mind could purify water.“I know some people that, through energetical transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, they managed to turn the most toxic food, or maybe the most polluted water, into the most healing water, because the water reacts,” he said. “Scientists have proven that in experiment, that molecules in the water react to our emotions to what has been said.” (“The people of Flint, Michigan, would love to hear that news,” the tennis commentator Mary Carillo replied.)It was during this same period that Djokovic revealed on Facebook Live his opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates. A few months later, he hosted an exhibition tour in the Balkans that became a superspreader event. Djokovic and his wife were among those who tested positive for the coronavirus. In the press and in tennis circles, Djokovic was pilloried for staging matches — with fans in attendance — during a public health crisis. But it was nothing compared to the opprobrium he has faced this month, particularly in Australia, where the public is chafing under Covid restrictions, and the Djokovic fight is playing out against the backdrop of an upcoming national election.Back in Serbia, however, Djokovic is seen as a victim who is being victimized because he is Serbian. “They are stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia and Serbian people,” Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, told reporters. The Serbian foreign ministry put out a statement saying that the Serbian public “has a strong impression” that Djokovic was “lured to travel to Australia in order to be humiliated” and that it was feeling “understandable indignation.”The Djokovic flap has come at a time of resurgent Serbian nationalism in Bosnia, and it has also revived interest in Djokovic’s political views. On a visit to Bosnia last September, he was photographed with the former commander of a paramilitary group that was implicated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He was also videotaped singing at a wedding with Milorad Dodik, the hard-line Serbian nationalist whose separatist rhetoric is raising fears that Bosnia might again fall into conflict.A mural dedicated to Djokovic, inscribed with the words “With faith in God,” in the Banjica area of Belgrade.Marko Risovic for The New York TimesDjokovic has made comments over the years that suggested he was at least sympathetic to Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he said that Kosovo belonged to Serbia after it declared independence. On the other hand, he’s coached by a Croat, the former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is seen by many in the Balkans as a conciliatory figure. People around Djokovic believe that he is not as popular as Federer and Nadal in part because he comes from a small country with a bad reputation. But that’s not necessarily an expression of Serbian nationalism, and there’s likely some truth to it.The Novak Djokovic Standoff With AustraliaCard 1 of 4A vaccine exemption question. More