World number one tennis player Novak Djokovic was denied entry to Australia on Thursday amid a storm of protest over the decision to grant him a medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination requirements to play in the Australian Open.
The tennis star was hiding in a quarantine hotel in Melbourne as his lawyers requested an urgent injunction to allow him to remain in the country after he was detained by border officials.
The saga, fueled by local political points about the country’s handling of a record spike in new Covid-19 infections, created an international incident where the Serbian president claimed harassment of its star player.
«There are no special cases, rules are rules,» Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a televised briefing. «We will continue to make the right decisions when it comes to securing Australian borders in relation to this pandemic.»
Djokovic, who has consistently refused to reveal his vaccination status while publicly criticizing mandatory vaccinations, started the furor when he said on Instagram that he had been given a medical exemption to pursue his record 21st Grand Slam win at the World Open starting January 17.
The announcement sparked outrage in Australia, particularly in the tournament’s host city Melbourne, which has suffered the world’s longest cumulative lockdown to stave off the coronavirus.
Australia’s adult vaccination rate of around 91 per cent is high by international standards and there is little public sympathy for those who refuse to be vaccinated, with the Omicron variant sending case numbers to record levels.
However, the Australian government’s move to block his entry caused clashes between Canberra and Belgrade.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Twitter that he spoke with Djokovic to reassure the player that «all of Serbia is with him and our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the best tennis player in the world will be ended immediately.»
Morrison said he was aware that the Serbian embassy in Canberra had «made protests» and denied the allegations of harassment. Morrison said it was an isolated case and noted that Djokovic had received attention, a possible reference to his anti-vaccination comments and his Instagram post.
Djokovic’s father told media in Serbia that his son entered an isolation room under police escort when he landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport at around 11:30 p.m. (Irish time) on Wednesday after a 14-hour flight from Dubai.
The hearing in the Federal Circuit and Family Court in Australia was adjourned until 6pm (Australian time) after Judge Anthony Kelly said he had not received the papers from Djokovic’s lawyer.
The court booked a full hearing on Monday for the case, but the government’s lawyers reserved the right to seek a ruling to remove Djokovic from the country before that hearing.
Nick Wood, Djokovic’s lawyer, told the judge that Tennis Australia had advised them to find out about his participation in the tournament by Tuesday. In response, Kelly said, «The tail won’t wobble the dog here.»
Djokovic’s fate is linked to a political battle in Australia, marked by finger-pointing between the Morrison’s conservative administration and the left-wing Victorian government led by Prime Minister Dan Andrews.
The dispute has been overshadowed by the fact that Australia’s daily Covid-19 infections hit a record for the fourth day in a row, with new cases exceeding 72,000, overcrowding hospitals and causing a labor shortage.
Under the Australian federal system, states and territories can issue waivers from vaccination requirements to enter their jurisdictions. However, the federal government controls international borders and can challenge such exemptions.
Djokovic traveled to Australia after receiving an exemption from the Victorian government. This exemption – reasons unknown – support visa issued by the federal government.
But upon his arrival, Federal Border Force officials at the airport said Djokovic was unable to justify the reasons for his exemption.
The Australian task force setting exemption criteria lists risks of serious heart disease from vaccination and Covid-19 infection within the past six months as an eligibility. However, Morrison said on Thursday that the Australian Tennis Club had been told weeks ago that the latest injury did not meet the exemption criteria.
Tennis Australia and government officials said Djokovic received no preferential treatment, adding that he was among «a handful» of approvals in an anonymous, independent assessment of 26 applications.
The Serb has won nine titles at Melbourne Park including the last three, but he will likely face a tough crowd if he arrives on the field next week.
«I think it could get ugly,» Australian tennis star Rod Laver, whose main stadium is named after, told News Corp. But at the same time there is a right way and a wrong way.’
Paul McNamee, a former Australian Open manager and professional tennis player, said Djokovic had followed the steps required to obtain a visa.
«He deserves his day in court, not in court, in my opinion,» McNamee told ABC television.
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