After four nights in an Australian immigration detention hotel, Novak Djokovic will appear in court on Monday in a deportation case that has drawn mixed opinions and galvanized heartfelt support for the top-ranked tennis star in his native Serbia.
Djokovic had his visa revoked after arriving at Melbourne airport last week when Australian border officials ruled he did not meet the criteria for exemption from the entry requirement that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
His lawyers have since submitted court papers in his appeal against deportation from Australia which show that Djokovic tested positive for COVID-19 last month and has recovered. He used that as a basis for applying for a medical exemption from Australia’s strict vaccination rules.
The case is scheduled to hold a virtual hearing to appeal the cancellation of the visa. It will be held at 10am local time in Melbourne (2300 GMT Sunday) at the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia.
Australian media reported on Sunday that the federal government’s bid to get more time to prepare its case against Djokovic was rejected. The request, made on behalf of Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews over the weekend, sought to delay the final hearing by two days – just five days from the start of the Australian Open.
Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly denied the request and the case will resume Monday as planned.
In Serbia, Djokovic’s family on Saturday staged a rally in support of him in Belgrade for the third day in a row, with Prime Minister Ana Brnabic assuring him of her government’s support in his battle for a visa to ensure he can enter Australia and defend his Australian Open title. The tournament begins on January 17 – just a week after its home stadium.
“We were able to make sure he got gluten-free food delivered to him, as well as exercise kits, a laptop and a SIM card so he could call his family,” Barnabeck said. It comes as Australian media reported that immigration officials had rejected a request that Djokovic’s personal chef cook for him at the immigration hotel.
Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion. He has 20 Grand Slam singles titles, a men’s record that he shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
In Djokovic’s perfect world, he would eat food cooked by that personal chef, train in the gym and train daily on the court since his arrival, mingling with his support group and friends along the way.
Instead, he was confined to his room in a modest immigration hotel in downtown Melbourne, with guards in the corridor.
The case became complicated.
Djokovic was granted a medical exemption with the support of the state government of Victoria and the organizers of the Australian Open on January 1, based on information he provided to two independent medical committees. Approved for a visa electronically.
But it has since emerged that Victoria’s medical exemption, which has allowed people who have tested positive for coronavirus within the past six months, has been deemed invalid by federal border authorities.
She could have entered the tournament, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the Australian Border Force.
Australian media reported details of court documents expected to be included in the testimony on Monday. It showed that Djokovic received a letter from Tennis Australia’s chief medical officer on December 30 “recording that he was granted a ‘medical exemption from the COVID vaccine’ on the basis that he had recently recovered from COVID.”
It said Djokovic’s first positive test was on December 16, and on the release date, the exemption said the 34-year-old “has not had a fever or respiratory symptoms in the past 72 hours.”
Djokovic attended the December 17 event in Belgrade to honor young tennis players. Local media covered the event, with parents posting pictures on social media showing Djokovic and the children not wearing masks. It is not clear if Djokovic was aware of his test results at the time.
On December 14, Djokovic had attended a Euroleague basketball match between Red Star and Barcelona in a crowded sports hall in Belgrade. He was photographed embracing several players from both teams, including some who later tested positive.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has said “rules are rules” and that incoming passengers were responsible for complying with border regulations, has been accused of taking advantage of Djokovic’s case to improve his rickety ranking in popularity polls ahead of the impending election.
Djokovic’s ordeal has prompted allegations from Serbia that Djokovic is being treated as a prisoner. The player himself appears to have become the standard bearer of anti-vaccine groups, including some who have gathered abroad for support outside his immigration hotel.
The Australian Open organizers have had some criticism over Djokovic’s situation, and for obvious good reason.
Tennis Australia, which runs the tournament and organizes the logistics of more than 2,000 incoming players, staff and officials, reportedly gave players incorrect explanations about the acceptable grounds for the exemption. This included the interpretation that infection with MERS-CoV during the previous six months would qualify. Regulators blamed the federal government for its conflicting policy messages.
Championship director Craig Tiley has continued to work in the background with Djokovic, or so it appears.
News Corp published in the newspapers on Saturday Tilly’s video message to the Australian Open staff about “difficult times in the public arena”.
“There was a circumstance involving two players, Novak in particular… in a very difficult situation,” Tilley said in the video. “We are a player first. We are working closely with Novak and his team, and the others and their team, who are in this situation.”
Djokovic was one of two players who were detained at the hotel, which also houses refugees and asylum seekers. A third person, reportedly responsible, left the country voluntarily following Border Force investigations.
The other player was Renata Vorakova, a 38-year-old doubles specialist, who had already been in Australia for a week before an investigation by border officials. The Czech Foreign Ministry said Vorakova voluntarily left Australia after deciding not to appeal the decision.
Monday’s court hearing will determine whether Djokovic is far from it.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, and Associated Press sports writer John Bay in Brisbane, Australia, contributed to this report.