Novak Djokovic: Timeline of tennis star’s visa saga in Australia

The nine-times Australian Open champion was deported after a second visa appeal was rejected

Tom Kershaw
Monday 17 January 2022 12:41
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Djokovic on ‘next plane home’ without vaccine exemption evidence, says Australian PM
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After his second appeal to reinstate his visa was rejected, Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia on Sunday, finally bringing an end to the long-running saga over his participation at the year’s first grand slam to an end.

The world No 1, who arrived in Australia having been granted a medical exemption by the Victorian government, spent four nights in a detention hotel in Melbourne after the federal government intervened and insisted that the nine-time Australian Open champion would not be allowed to defend his title.

Djokovic won his first appeal on procedural grounds, owing to the border force’s handling of his arrival at Tullamarine Airport, and the 34-year-old was released from detention and able to practice inside Rod Laver Arena.

However, on Friday evening, Australia’s immigration minister Alex Hawke used his discretionary powers to cancel Djokovic’s visa once again. Although the Serbian lodged another appeal, it was rejected after panel of three judges determined that Djokovic’s presence “may be counterproductive to efforts at vaccination by others”.

Djokovic, who said he was “extremely disappointed” with the verdict, was deported to Dubai on Sunday evening and boarded a connecting flight to Belgrade, where he landed on Monday morning.

Several unanswered questions remain over the validity of his alleged positive Covid-19 test on 16 December, as well as his participation at other grand slam events going forwards, with France recently tightening their restrictions on the unvaccinated.

Here is a timeline of how the saga unfolded:

April 2020 – Djokovic publicly opposes vaccines

After the coronavirus outbreak is declared a global pandemic, Djokovic publicly declares that he is “opposed to vaccination” and “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel”.

His comments receive widespread backlash and one of Serbia’s leading scientists accuses Djokovic of “creating misconceptions”.

June 2020 – Djokovic tests positive at own tournament

As sport grinds to a halt across the continent, Djokovic organises a competition in the Balkans named the Adria Tour and invites several leading players, including Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, to participate.

Players are seen partying at a nightclub without masks and the event is cancelled after two of its five legs when Djokovic becomes one of several players to test positive for Covid-19. He subsequently apologises for organising the event.

January 2021 – Djokovic attracts criticism in Australia

Djokovic rails against the strict quarantine measures imposed on players travelling to Melbourne for the Australian Open, despite being one of a select few to benefit from access to a gym and outdoor courts at a separate hotel in Adelaide.

His comments draw criticism but he claims they were taken out of context and were designed to help other players rather than himself.

4 January 2022 – Djokovic receives ‘medical exemption’

After one of the greatest seasons of his career, months of speculation seemingly end with Djokovic being granted an exemption to defend his title in Australia, despite not revealing his vaccination status.

“Today I’m heading Down Under with exemption permission. Let’s go 2022,” he writes on Twitter before boarding a flight from Dubai to Melbourne.

A statement from Tennis Australia, in conjunction with Victoria State, appears to confirm such an exemption, reading: “Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts.”

Djokovic’s post prompts furious backlash from within Australia, where cases have been rising sharply and Melbourne itself has been subjected to six lockdowns.

Under pressure from the public, prime minister Scott Morrison and other politicians intervene and insist Djokovic will not be afforded special treatment. “If he’s not vaccinated, he must provide acceptable proof that he cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons,” Mr Morrison writes on Twitter.

“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. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever.”

5 January 2022 – Djokovic held at border as visa cancelled

The mood turns when Djokovic lands at Tullamarine airport and, despite believing he has clearance to enter the country, he is held for around 10 hours by the Australian Border Force. His exemption is withdrawn and his visa is cancelled and eventually the 34-year-old is transferred to the Park Hotel in Carlton, a state-run immigration facility that is also used to house asylum seekers. Djokovic lodges an appeal, with the hearing set for Monday morning.

6 January 2022 – Serbia reacts to Djokovic’s detainment

After fans gather outside the Park Hotel in protest, back in Serbia Djokovic’s parents both liken the immigration facility to a “prison” and claim it is dirty and riddled with bugs. His father, Srdan, compares Djokovic to Jesus and claims he is being “crucified” for his values.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic attacks Mr Morrison, claiming Djokovic is a victim of persecution and is being used as a political pawn. “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,” he says in a statement.

Australian politicians insist visa applications are a matter for the federal government and cannot be decided by Tennis Australia and Victoria State. Acting sports minister Jaala Pulford tweets: “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.”

Mr Morrison reiterates that point on Thursday morning in a tweet: “Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules.”

7 January 2022 – Djokovic breaks silence as second player detained

After requests to switch to his own accommodation, order food from a personal chef and gain access to a tennis court are all denied, Djokovic breaks his silence in an Instagram post thanking his fans for their support. He said: “Thank you to people around the world for your continuous support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated.”

The government confirms that two more players are under investigation by the Australian Border Force after successfully entering Melbourne under the same vaccine exemption. Doubles player Renata Voracova, who had already competed in a warm-up event, is detained by officials and taken to the same hotel as Djokovic. The third player leaves the country.

8 January 2022 – Court documents explain Djokovic’s case

Ahead of his hearing on Monday, court documents released by Djokovic’s lawyers outline his case. They reveal that Djokovic took a PCR test on 16 December that returned a positive result which appears to form the basis for his exemption. There is also a letter dated 1 January from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs – the agency that has detained him – appearing to indicate that he “met the requirements for a quarantine-free arrival.”

Djokovic had not previously revealed the positive test and pictures show that he attended public events on both the day of the test and the following day in Belgrade.

A leaked video shows Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley praising his staff for their “unbelievable efforts” a day after the organisation denies “misleading” anyone.

“There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on and a lot of blaming going on, but I can assure you our team has done an unbelievable job and have done everything they possibly could according to all the instructions that they have been provided,” he says.

9 January 2022 - Government fails in bid to delay visa hearing

A late attempt to delay Novak Djokovic’s visa hearing until after the Australian Open draw is finalised is rejected by Judge Anthony Kelly.

Home affairs minister Karen Andrews had attempted to push Monday’s hearing to Wednesday.

10 January 2022 – Djokovic wins appeal against deportation

After a lengthy testimony, Judge Kelly moves to quash the original decision to revoke Djokovic’s visa and orders the 34-year-old be released from detention immediately.

The judge rules that Djokovic should have been allowed to enter the country after being granted his medical exemption, stating to the court: “What more could this man have done?”

After his release, Djokovic posts a picture of him training at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, confirming: “Despite all that has happened, I want to stay and try to compete at the Australian Open. I remain focused on that.”

In Serbia, a press conference conducted by his family is brought to an abrupt end after they refused to answer questions about Djokovic’s positive Covid test, after pictures emerged of the world No 1 in public and without wearing a mask hours after receiving his positive result.

12 January 2022 - Djokovic admits breaking isolation after positive test

Following continued questions over the pictures of Djokovic in public, the 20-time grand slam winner releases a statement clarifying “ongoing misinformation”.

In this statement, Djokovic admits to knowingly breaking isolation to attend an interview and photoshoot with L’Equipe on 18 December having learned of his positive test a day prior.

Djokovic further explains that incorrect travel information on his immigration form that claimed he had not travelled in the two weeks before entering Australia was due to “human error” on the part of his agent, who made a mistake when filling in the form on Djokovic’s behalf.

Giving false or misleading information in the form is an offence, carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months in prison, and a fine of up to A$6,600 and can lead to cancellation of the offender’s visa.

Djokovic claims that his lawyers have sent additional information to the Australian government.

13 January 2022 - Djokovic included in Australian Open draw

Djokovic was confirmed in the Australian Open draw at a delayed ceremony on Thursday.

The 34-year-old defending champion was bracketed to play unseeded fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic in the first round at Melbourne Park after organisers delayed the draw for more than an hour without explanation.

Tournament director Craig Tiley declined to take questions at the end of the subdued ceremony, with Australian immigration minister Alex Hawke still weighing whether to revoke Djokovic’s visa for a second time after it was cancelled on his arrival at Melbourne airport.

14 January 2022 - Djokovic sees visa cancelled for second time

The world number one had been waiting since a judge overturned the original decision on Monday to find out whether Immigration Minister Alex Hawke would use his discretionary powers to reimpose the penalty.

And, just before 6pm (7am UK time) on Friday, Hawke released a statement saying he had made the judgement to send Djokovic home “on health and good order grounds”.

Hawke said: “Today I exercised my power under section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel the visa held by Mr Novak Djokovic on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so. This decision followed orders by the Federal Circuit and Family Court on 10 January 2022, quashing a prior cancellation decision on procedural fairness grounds.

“In making this decision, I carefully considered information provided to me by the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force and Mr Djokovic. The Morrison Government is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

15 January 2022 - Djokovic’s second appeal is rejected

A panel of three judges uphold Alex Hawke’s decision after Djokovic’s lawyers argue that the immigration minister’s intervention - based on Djokovic being a danger to the public health - was misguided.

In a statement, Djokovic says he is “extremely disappointed but respects the court’s ruling”.

“I’ll cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from Australia,” he says. “I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love. I would like to wish the players, tournament officials, staff, volunteers and fans all the best for the tournament.”

The verdict is welcomed by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, who says it will “keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe”.

16 January 2022 - Djokovic is deported

Djokovic boards a flight to Dubai from where he plans to return home to Serbia.

Back in Australia, Scott Morrison suggests that the three-year ban usually imposed on those whose visas are rejected can be reviewed under the “right circumstances”.

Serbian politicians criticise Australia’s handling and politicising of the case. Notably, some players off their support to Djokovic, too.

“I know too little to judge the situation,” writes world No 61 Alize Cornet on Twitter. “What I know is that Novak is always the first one to stand for the players. But none of us stood for him.”

Boris Becker, who coached Djokovic between 2014-2016, insists the “easiest thing” remains for Djokovic to get vaccinated so as not to jeopardise his bid to break the men’s grand slam record.

“He wanted to break the record of 21,” Becker says. “There was no better chance for him than to play in Melbourne. Now, this chance is taken away, so I think deep down, he will be very frustrated.

“It is the ultimate question [if he will get vaccinated]. Life would be easier for him and anyone else who gets vaccinated... It is tough enough to win a tennis tournament. Now his struggle is to get the right documents in order to participate in one. It’s crazy the world we live in, but that is the way it is. I think we have all had two years to accept it, and there is no other choice.”

What’s next?

Djokovic faces doubts over his participation at other grand slams going forwards, particularly at Roland Garros, if he chooses to remain unvaccinated.

French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu says: “The vaccine pass has been adopted. As soon as the law is promulgated, it will become compulsory to enter public buildings already subject to the health pass (stadium, theatre or lounge) for all spectators, practitioners, French or foreign professionals.”

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