Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player, traveled all day from Dubai to Australia on Wednesday, a journey that was to begin his defense of the Australian Open singles championship.
He was told on Thursday that he would have to leave the country after a 10-hour standoff with government officials at an airport in Melbourne, where he was held overnight in a room over the validity of his visa and questions about the evidence supporting the attack. a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine. The waiver was intended to allow Djokovic, a 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion and one of the biggest stars in the sport, to compete in the Australian Open, even though he is unvaccinated.
Djokovic did not leave the country immediately and his team filed a legal challenge against the ruling on Thursday. A judge said Djokovic could stay in Australia at least until Monday while his lawyers await a hearing.
A spokesperson for the tennis star did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Hours later, fans waved Serbian flags gathered outside the Melbourne hotel where Djokovic was believed to be staying to protest the decision to deny his visa.
The series of events marked a surprising turnaround for Djokovic, who in just over 24 hours of receiving special, last-minute clearance to play in the Open, boarded an intercontinental flight, essentially told by the Prime Minister of Australia that he was not welcome in the country.
At one point, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic even got involved, speaking to Djokovic and criticizing the Australian government for its treatment of his country’s biggest sports star.
The pandemic has devastated the sport in all sorts of ways over the past two years. The Tokyo Summer Olympics have been postponed for a year. Major events took place in empty stadiums. Star players have been sent into isolation just before their competitions after they tested positive for the virus.
The situation with Djokovic, one of the most polarizing figures in tennis, was a match for them. It sparked a showdown between a sports superstar and the most powerful leader in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, where government officials, citizens, the media and even some fellow players criticized the waiver, seemingly triggering the sudden shift.
The decision promises to be another flashpoint in the debate over vaccines and how to manage the pandemic now, especially in Australia, where egalitarianism is considered a sacred principle – and where ‘the tennis’, as the Open is called, is also loved. is at what often seems like a whole nation of sports fanatics.
In a statement on Thursday, the Australian Border Force pledged to “continue to ensure that those arriving at our border comply with our laws and entry requirements. The ABF can confirm that Mr Djokovic has not provided appropriate evidence to comply with the entry requirements for Australia and that his visa has subsequently been revoked.”
For Djokovic, it was the latest and arguably the most sweeping controversy in a career filled with them, almost all of which have been caused by the behavior of a champion who can be just as headstrong and inflexible off the pitch as he is at it. .
Djokovic has never been shy about expressing his non-traditional views on science and medicine (he once expressed support for the idea that prayer and faith could purify poisonous water), and he has stated his opposition to vaccine mandates on multiple occasions, by saying that vaccination is a private matter. and personal decision. However, he had only announced this week whether he had been vaccinated.
On Tuesday he has announced on Twitter that he had been granted a medical exemption from requiring all people entering Australia to be vaccinated or quarantined for 14 days on arrival. He later boarded a plane bound for Australia from Dubai.
In a statement later that day, Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, explained that players seeking an exemption had to pass two panels of medical experts. The process involved editing personal information to ensure privacy.
“Fair and independent protocols have been put in place for reviewing medical waiver applications so that we can ensure that the 2022 Australian Open is safe and enjoyable for everyone,” said Tiley. “Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that each applicant was given due consideration.”
Tiley said in a televised interview on Wednesday that 26 players had applied for a waiver and that “a handful” had been awarded. According to Tiley, 99 percent of the more than 3,000 people who came to Australia for the tournament had been vaccinated. The handful who received a waiver had a medical condition or had Covid-19 in the past six months, although Australian health officials said late last year a recent infection wouldn’t necessarily be enough to gain entry.
Tennis Australia said Djokovic’s exemption was granted in part by an independent panel appointed by the Victoria Department of Health.
Djokovic landed at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday. By this time, he had become the central figure in a firestorm over how he had been allowed to enter Australia, which is experiencing an astonishing rise in coronavirus cases.
The country has waged one of the most successful fights against Covid-19, but a heavy price has been paid. The strict lockdowns have been going on for months. International borders were largely closed until recently. Inbound travelers had to comply with an expensive two-week quarantine upon arrival. For a long time, even domestic interstate travel was banned. The country has had about 2,200 deaths, but has now faced more than 30,000 cases a day since the borders opened late last year.
While Djokovic flew to Melbourne, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison invoked government authority to deny Djokovic entry.
“Anyone wishing to enter Australia must meet our border requirements,” Morrison said.
“We are waiting for his presentation and what evidence he provides to support that,” Morrison added. “If that evidence is insufficient, he will not be treated differently from anyone else and he will be on the next plane home. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. Not a single one.”
The coronavirus pandemic: important things to know
The global rise. In early 2022, the virus is spreading faster than ever, but the closing days of 2021 brought encouraging news that the Omicron variant causes less severe disease than previous waves. Governments are therefore focusing more on expanding vaccination than on limiting its spread.
Also on Wednesday, Jaala Pulford, the acting sports minister for the state of Victoria, which contains Melbourne, the site of the Open, said the state government would not support Djokovic’s application for a visa. Pulford wrote on Twitter that “visa approvals are a matter for the federal government.”
Her statement followed comments from Australian Home Secretary Karen Andrews, who noted that the government had the power to block Djokovic from entering the country. In a statement headlined “Australia’s Border Rules Apply to Everyone,” Andrews said that “although the Victorian Government and Tennis Australia may allow an unvaccinated player to participate in the Australian Open, the Government of the Commonwealth is our requirements on the Australian border.”
The decision to grant Djokovic a medical exemption from two expert panels was greeted with: skepticism and resignation from some of his fellow players, and outrage from Australians.
“I think if I hadn’t been vaccinated I wouldn’t get an exemption,” Britain’s Jamie Murray said on Tuesday.
Others criticized the Australian government for messing up the process and mistreating the world’s top-ranked player.
Tennys Sandgren, an American professional player who is also against a vaccination mandate, stated on Twitter that “Australia does not deserve to host a Grand Slam.”
Djokovic, who is tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most Grand Slam titles in men’s singles with 20, would have been a favorite to win his 21st in Melbourne, where he has won nine times. Melbourne has a small but energetic community of Serbian expatriates, who attend all of Djokovic’s matches at the Rod Laver Arena, the main court of the Open, providing him with rare enthusiastic support outside his home country.
While the professional tours for men and women do not require vaccination, tennis officials are at the mercy of the local, state and national governments in power where tournaments are held. It is possible that Djokovic will face these conditions at other competitions if countries require a vaccine for entry or a local government requires a vaccine for his job.
The French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, which will take place in the late spring and summer, have yet to announce whether a vaccine will be needed.
Andrew Das, Isabella Kwai, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Damien Cave reporting contributed.