MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic’s attempt to play at the Australian Open despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19 was taken to a higher court on Saturday when the No. 1 tennis player appealed the second cancellation of his visa.
Djokovic was not seen in the publicly available online feed for the 15-minute hearing, which began just two days before his scheduled first game of 2022 at Melbourne Park.
Judge David O’Callaghan ruled that lawyers representing Djokovic and the government would have to present written arguments later on Saturday and scheduled another hearing for Sunday morning.
Immigration Secretary Alex Hawke blocked the 34-year-old Serb’s visa, which was originally revoked when he landed at a Melbourne airport last week. But it was restored by a judge on Monday on procedural grounds because Djokovic was not allowed to have a lawyer with him at the airport.
When the final appeal began on Friday night, Djokovic remained at large but the plan was for him to be effectively returned to immigration detention when he met with Australian Border Force officers on Saturday morning.
Deportation from Australia can result in a three-year return ban, which can be waived depending on the circumstances.
Djokovic has a record nine Australian Open titles, including the last three in a row, part of his total Grand Slam haul of 20 championships. He is linked to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most by a man in history.
Djokovic has admitted that his travel statement was wrong because it failed to indicate that he had been to several countries in the two weeks prior to his arrival in Australia. His supporters in Serbia are dismayed by the visa cancellation.
In a social media post on Wednesday, which was his most extensive public comment on the entire episode, Djokovic accused his agent of ticking the wrong box on the form, calling it “a human error and certainly not intentional.”
In the same post, Djokovic said he did an interview and photoshoot with a French newspaper in Serbia, despite knowing he had tested positive for COVID-19 two days earlier. Djokovic has attempted to use what he believes to be a positive test from December 16 to justify a medical exemption that would allow him to evade vaccination requirements.
Hawke said he canceled the visa for “health and public order reasons because it is in the public interest”. In his statement, he added that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government is “firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The main reason behind the appeal against Hawke’s decision, according to the athlete’s lawyers, was that it was not based on the health risk Djokovic could pose if he is not vaccinated, but on how he might be perceived by anti-vaccination people.
Morrison himself welcomed Djokovic’s upcoming deportation. The episode struck a chord in Australia, and in the state of Victoria in particular, where locals have endured hundreds of days of lockdowns during the worst of the pandemic and where adult vaccination rates are more than 90%.
Australia is facing a massive spike in virus cases caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. On Friday, the nation reported 130,000 new cases, including nearly 35,000 in the state of Victoria. Although many of those infected are no longer getting as sick as in previous outbreaks, the surge is still putting a heavy strain on the healthcare system, with more than 4,400 people hospitalized. It’s also causing disruption to workplaces and supply chains.
“This pandemic has been incredibly difficult for every Australian but we have stuck together and saved lives and livelihoods. … Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic and they rightly expect the outcome of those sacrifices to be protected,” Morrison said. “That is what the Minister is doing today by taking these measures.”
Everyone at the Australian Open – including players, their support teams and spectators – needs to be vaccinated. Djokovic is not vaccinated.
His exemption was approved by the Victoria State Government and Tennis Australia, which appears to have allowed him to obtain a travel visa. But the Australian Border Force refused the exemption and canceled his visa when he landed in the country on January 5.
Djokovic spent four nights in an immigration detention hotel before a judge overturned that decision. This decision allowed Djokovic to roam freely around Australia and he has been training daily at Melbourne Park.
“It’s not a good situation for anyone,” said Andy Murray, a three-time Grand Slam champion and five-time Australian Open runner-up. “I just want it to be resolved obviously. I think it would be good for everyone if that were the case. It just seems like it’s going on for quite a while now – not great for tennis, not great for the Australian Open. not good for Novak.”
If Djokovic is forced to withdraw from the tournament under Grand Slam rules before the Day 1 order of play is announced, No. 5 Rublev would move up to Djokovic’s place in the bracket.
If Djokovic withdraws from the tournament after the release of Monday’s schedule, he would be replaced in the field by a so-called “lucky loser” – a player who loses in the qualifying tournament but gets into the main draw due to another player’s elimination before the competition has begun.
And if Djokovic plays in a match – or more – and is then told he can no longer compete in the tournament, his next opponent would simply advance to the next round and there would be no replacement.