World No.1 men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic traveled all day Wednesday from Dubai to Australia, a trip that was supposed to start his defense of the Australian Open singles championship.
He was told on Thursday he was expected to leave the country, following a 10-hour standoff with government officials at a Melbourne airport, where he was held in a room overnight over the validity of their visa and questions about the evidence to support a medical examination. exemption from a coronavirus vaccine. The exemption was supposed to allow Djokovic, 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion and one of the sport’s biggest stars, to compete in the Australian Open even though he was not vaccinated.
Djokovic did not immediately leave the country and his team filed a legal challenge against the ruling on Thursday. A judge said Djokovic would be allowed to stay in Australia at least until Monday as his lawyers waited for a hearing.
A spokesperson for the tennis star did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Hours later, fans waving Serbian flags gathered outside the Melbourne hotel where Djokovic was reportedly staying to protest the decision to reject his visa.
The chain of events represented a surprising turnaround for Djokovic, who in just over 24 hours went from getting a last-minute special clearance to play the Open to boarding an intercontinental flight, then to the announcement of the Australian Prime Minister. that he was not welcome in the country.
At one point, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic even got involved, speaking with Djokovic and criticizing the Australian government for its treatment of his country’s biggest sports star.
The pandemic has taken all kinds of havoc in sports over the past two years. The Tokyo Summer Olympics have been postponed for a year. Big events took place in empty stadiums. The star players were isolated just before their competitions after testing positive for the virus.
The situation involving Djokovic, one of tennis’s most polarizing figures, was a game for neither of 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 other players criticized the exemption, apparently causing the sudden change.
The move promises to become another flashpoint in the vaccine debate and how the pandemic should be handled now, particularly in Australia, where egalitarianism is seen as a sacred principle – and where “tennis As the Open is called, is also loved by what often looks like an entire nation of sports fanatics.
In a statement released 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 failed to provide appropriate evidence to qualify for entry into Australia, and his visa was subsequently canceled.
For Djokovic, this was the most recent and arguably most heartbreaking controversy in a career filled with it, almost all brought on by the behavior of a champion who can be as willful and adamant off the pitch as he is. above.
Djokovic has never shied away from expressing his non-traditional views on science and medicine (he has previously expressed support for the idea that prayer and belief could purify toxic water), and he has repeatedly stated his opposition to vaccination warrants, claiming that vaccination is a private matter. and personal decision. However, he had only revealed this week whether he had been vaccinated.
Tuesday it announcement on Twitter that he had received a medical exemption from the requirement that all people entering Australia be vaccinated or quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. He then boarded a plane bound for Australia from Dubai.
In a statement later today, Craig Tiley, managing director of Tennis Australia, explained that players seeking exemption must submit to two panels of medical experts. The process included drafting personal information to ensure confidentiality.
“Fair and independent protocols have been established to assess medical exemption requests that will allow us to ensure that the 2022 Australian Open is safe and enjoyable for everyone,” Tiley said. “The central point of this process was that decisions were made by independent medical experts and that each candidate was given due consideration. “
Tiley said in a TV interview on Wednesday that 26 players had requested a waiver and “a handful” had been granted. According to Tiley, 99% of the more than 3,000 people who came to Australia for the tournament have been vaccinated. The handful who got an exemption had a health problem or had Covid-19 in the past six months, although Australian health officials said late last year that a recent infection would not be enough necessarily to enter.
Tennis Australia said Djokovic’s exemption was granted in part by an independent panel appointed by the Victoria Department of Health.
Djokovic landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday. By that time, he had become the central figure in a firestorm over how he was cleared to enter Australia, which is seeing a surprising increase in coronavirus cases.
The country has fought one of the most successful battles against Covid-19, but it has come at a cost. Strict lockdowns have been going on for months. International borders were largely closed until recently. Incoming travelers were required to adhere to an expensive two-week quarantine upon arrival. For long periods, even domestic travel between states was banned. The country has seen around 2,200 deaths, but since opening its borders late last year, it now treats more than 30,000 cases a day.
As Djokovic flew to Melbourne, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison invoked the authority of the government to deny Djokovic entry.
“Anyone seeking to enter Australia must comply with our border requirements,” Morrison said.
“We await his presentation and the evidence he provides us to support this,” added Morrison. “If that evidence is insufficient, then he will not be treated any differently from the others and he will be on the next plane back. There shouldn’t be any special rules for Novak Djokovic. Not at all.”
The coronavirus pandemic: what you need to know
The global wave. The virus is spreading faster than ever in early 2022, but the final days of 2021 brought encouraging news that the Omicron variant was producing less severe disease than previous waves. As such, governments are focusing more on expanding immunization than limiting the spread.
Also on Wednesday, Jaala Pulford, the acting sports minister for the state of Victoria, home to Melbourne, the site of the Open, said the state government would not support Djokovic’s visa application. Pulford wrote on Twitter that “visa approvals are the responsibility of the federal government.”
His statement followed comments by Australian Home Secretary Karen Andrews, who noted that the government has the power to prevent Djokovic from entering the country. In a statement titled “Australia’s border rules apply to everyone,” Andrews said “although the Victorian government and Tennis Australia may allow an unvaccinated player to participate in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border.
The decision to grant Djokovic medical exemption from two expert panels was greeted with skepticism and resignation of some of his teammates and the outrage of the Australians.
“I think if it was me who wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t get an exemption,” Britain’s Jamie Murray said on Tuesday.
Others have criticized the Australian government for messing up the process and mistreating the world’s highest ranked player.
Tennys Sandgren, an American professional player who is also against a vaccination mandate, said on Twitter that “Australia does not deserve to host a Grand Slam”.
Djokovic, who is tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for most men’s Grand Slam titles with 20, would have been the favorite to win his 21st in Melbourne, where he won nine times. Melbourne has a small but energetic Serbian expatriate community, who attend all of Djokovic’s matches at Rod Laver Arena, the Open’s main court, and provide him with rare enthusiastic support away from his homeland.
While professional male and female touring does not require vaccination, tennis officials are at the mercy of the ruling local, state and national governments where the tournaments are held. It is possible that Djokovic will face these circumstances in other competitions if countries require a vaccine for entry or if a local government requires one for work.
The French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, which take place in late spring and summer, have yet to announce whether a vaccine will be needed.
André Das, Isabelle Kwai, Livia Albeck Ripka and Damien cave contributed report.