Novak Djokovic, the men’s world No 1 tennis player, was denied entry into Australia on Thursday after initially being granted a medical exemption for the country’s Covid-19 vaccination requirements so that he could play in the Australian Open.
Djokovic, who was left stranded at Melbourne’s Tullamanrien airport overnight, was issued a letter by the Australian government saying his visa had been denied and he would be deported.
The Australian Border Force confirmed Djokovic had failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the country’s entry requirements, causing his visa to be cancelled.
The tennis star was filing an injunction to prevent his deportation, a source said.
Health minister Greg Hunt said the visa cancellation followed a review of Djokovic’s medical exemption by border officials who looked “at the integrity and the evidence behind it.” He said Djokovic was free to appeal the decision, “but if a visa is canceled, somebody will have to leave the country”.
Djokovic, who is seeking a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open, touched down at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport Wednesday about 23:30 local time [1230 GMT] after a 14-hour flight from Dubai.
But he was still awaiting permission early Thursday morning to enter the country after it emerged that his team had applied for a visa that does not allow for medical exemptions.
That prompted the local government of Victoria, the state where the Open is played, to say it would not support Djokovic’s application, putting his fate in the hands of the federal government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Mr Morrison later tweeted: “Mr Djokovic’s visa has been cancelled. Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from Covid, we are continuing to be vigilant.”
The extraordinary move by the Australian government to block Djokovic from entering the country because of a mistake on his visa form threatened to cause a diplomatic incident between Canberra and Belgrade.
“I’ve just finished my telephone conversation with Novak Djokovic,” Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic posted on Instagram. “I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately.
“In line with all norms of international law, Serbia will fight for Novak, truth and justice. Novak is strong, as we all know.”
Mr Vucic had summoned the Australian ambassador in Belgrade and demanded that they immediately release Djokovic to play, Serbian media reported.
Djokovic’s father Srdjan said that his son was waiting alone in a room at the airport under armed guard for a final decision on whether he could enter the country.
“I have no clue what’s going on, they’ve kept my son in captivity for five hours now,” Srdjan told the Serbian online version of Sputnik. “If they don’t let him go in half a hour, we’ll gather in the streets, this is a battle for everyone.”
“Not the most usual trip from Down Under,” coach Goran Ivanisevic commented beside an Instagram selfie from the airport lounge, accompanied by face-palm and mind-blown emojis.
Mr Morrison had initially faced an enormous backlash over his government’s decision to grant Djokovic a medical exemption from vaccination to play at the Open, leading to finger-pointing between the prime minister’s conservative administration and the left-leaning Victorian government led by premier Dan Andrews.
Australia, especially the state of Victoria, has endured the world’s longest cumulative lockdown and an outbreak of the Omicron variant has sent case numbers to record levels.
Following the backlash, Mr Morrison suggested Djokovic would have to satisfy the federal government, which has responsibility for international borders and visas and was not part of the exemption process.
Mr Morrison said shortly before Djokovic’s arrival that there would be “no special rules” for him on his exemption.
“If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home,” he told a media conference earlier.
Djokovic came in on an Emirates flight but when border officials contacted the Victorian government to ask if the state would formally support the world number one’s visa, it said it would not.
“The federal government has asked if we will support Novak Djokovic’s visa application to enter Australia,” Victoria’s acting sports minister Jaala Pulford said. “We will not be providing Novak Djokovic with individual visa application support to participate in the 2022 Australian Open Grand Slam.
“We’ve always been clear on two points: visa approvals are a matter for the federal government, and medical exemptions are a matter for doctors.”
The Serbian, who has previously declined to reveal his vaccination status, has won nine titles at Melbourne Park including the last three.
Australian tennis great Rod Laver, after whom the main showcourt at Melbourne Park in the state of Victoria is named, warned that Djokovic might face hostility from the local crowd should he play.
“I think it might get ugly,” Laver told News Corp. “I’d think the Victorian people would be thinking ‘Yes I’d love to see him play and compete, but at the same time there’s a right way and a wrong way.’
“Yes, you’re a great player and you’ve performed and won so many tournaments, so it can’t be physical. So what is the problem?”
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