Tennis star Novak Djokovic began this day outside immigration detention in Australia, nearly a week after he flew into the country, and into an international furore surrounding his Covid-19 vaccination status. However, the world first seed still faces the risk of being detained by the federal government for a second time and deported, despite yesterday’s court ruling that quashed the Australian government’s previous decision to cancel his visa.
Djokovic was back in training hours after winning that court challenge, thanking the judge who released him from immigration detention and saying he remained focused on trying to win a record 21st tennis major at next week’s Australian Open.
“I am pleased and grateful that the judge overturned my visa cancellation,” Djokovic wrote on Twitter, where he posted a photograph of himself on the court at Melbourne Park after a chaotic few days. “Despite all that has happened I want to stay and try to compete at the Australian Open.”
The plight of Djokovic drew international attention, creating a political spat between Canberra and Belgrade and fuelling heated debates over mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policies.
John Alexander, a member of the coalition government’s Liberal Party and a former professional tennis player, said it would be a mistake for Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to now use his discretionary powers to deport the Serbian player.
To do so would “diminish” the status of the Australian Open, Alexander said.
“We had previously been the poor cousin of the four events,” he said. “We’ve got a lot going for us, but we need to treat it carefully.”
Hawke’s office said late yesterday the minister was still considering whether he would use his discretion under the Migration Act to cancel Djokovic’s visa for a second time. Spokespeople for the minister did not immediately return calls seeking comment today.
The ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, applauded the court ruling, saying the dispute was “damaging on all fronts, including for Novak’s well-being and preparation for the Australian Open.”
The ATP said it supported Australia’s stringent vaccination regulations but added the situation highlighted the need for clearer understanding and communication of the rules. It said it strongly recommends all players get vaccinated and noted that 97% of the top 100 players were vaccinated.
Judge Anthony Kelly said he quashed the decision to block Djokovic’s entry because the player had not been given enough time to respond to it.
Officials at Melbourne’s airport, where Djokovic was detained when he landed late last Wednesday, had reneged on an agreement to give him until 8:30 AM to speak to Tennis Australia and lawyers, Kelly said.
Djokovic, who has long opposed mandatory vaccination, told border officials he was unvaccinated and had contracted Covid-19 twice, according to a transcript of the interview.
Kelly told the court it appeared Djokovic had received the medical exemption from Covid-19 vaccination on the basis that he had contracted the virus last month, and had presented evidence of the infection before travelling and on arrival.
Kelly’s ruling did not directly address the issue of whether the exemption on the grounds of an infection in the past six months was valid, which the government had disputed.
The Australian Open begins on 17 January. Djokovic has won the tournament, one of tennis’ four Grand Slams, for the last three years and nine times in all.
Spain’s Rafa Nadal, who is tied on 20 majors with Djokovic and Switzerland’s Roger Federer, called the fraught build-up to the tournament a “circus” and said the “fairest decision” had been made.
However, former American player turned pundit Pam Shriver warned on Twitter the controversy may not be over: “If he plays the booing will be deafening.”
Public opinion in Australia, which is battling an Omicron wave of infections and where more than 90% of the adult population is double vaccinated, has been largely against the player.
Resistance in Melbourne, home of the Open, has been particularly vocal after the city experienced the world’s longest cumulative lockdown.
“We’ve had to go through vaccination protocols and lockdowns for such a long time and he swans in and pretty much does what he likes because he’s the world best tennis player,” Melbourne resident Keith Moore told Reuters.
Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews, whose administration initially granted Djokovic an exemption, said the decision whether to again detain him rested with the federal government.
Andrews’ left-leaning Victoria government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative administration have engaged in finger pointing over responsibility for the saga.
Under Australia’s federal system, states and territories can issue exemptions from vaccination requirements to enter their jurisdictions. However, the federal government controls international borders and can challenge such exemptions.
“The issue of who gets into the country and their vaccination status though is not a matter for state governments,” Andrews said. “I don’t issue visas, the Commonwealth government does that.”