© Reuters. A supporter of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic gathers in Melbourne, Australia on January 7, 2022, in front of the Park Hotel where the star athlete will be held while he is staying in Australia. REUTERS / Loren Elliott
By Sonali Paul and Cordelia Hsu
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic traded one place for another on Tuesday and did a few practice strokes at Melbourne Park while warming up for his attempt at a record 21. Winning tennis major at the Australian Open next week.
A week after arriving in Australia, Djokovic finally reached Center Court thanks to Monday's court ruling that replaced the federal government's earlier decision to revoke his visa.
The world number one is still at risk of being arrested and deported a second time by the federal government. Immigration Secretary Alex Hawke's office said he was still considering using his discretion to cancel Djokovic's visa.
"In accordance with due process, Secretary Hawke will look into the matter carefully," a spokesman said in an email. "As the problem persists, it is not appropriate for legal reasons to comment further."
Australia has a policy that prohibits non-citizens or non-residents from entering the country unless they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. It allows medical exemptions, but the government argued that the unvaccinated Djokovic did not provide sufficient justification for an exemption.
The court ruled that Djokovic had been treated unfairly by border officials upon arrival and ordered that his visa cancellation be lifted. However, it was not discussed whether his exception – based on Djokovic suffering from COVID-19 last month – was valid.
Djokovic's plight attracted international attention, sparked a political dispute between Canberra and Belgrade, and fueled heated debates over mandatory COVID-19 vaccination guidelines.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's office said he spoke to Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Monday and "explained our non-discriminatory border policy". According to Serbian media reports, Brnabic emphasized the importance of Djokovic preparing for the tournament. Both agreed to keep in touch on this matter.
Djokovic, who thanked the judge and his determination to compete in the first major of the year in a Twitter (NYSE 🙂 post late Monday, did not address the situation publicly on Tuesday.
It was filmed by local media helicopters practicing in Rod Laver Arena, amid unusually tight security in Melbourne Park.
John Alexander, a member of Morrison's Liberal Party and former professional tennis player, said a new decision to deport Djokovic would "diminish" the status of the Australian Open.
"We were the poor cousin of the four events before," he said. "We have a lot ahead of us, but we have to be careful with it."
The ATP, the umbrella organization for men's tennis, welcomed the court ruling and said the dispute was "harmful on all fronts, including Novak's well-being and preparation for the Australian Open."
Djokovic was arrested by border guards late Wednesday when he landed at Melbourne Airport. His visa was canceled because he failed to provide adequate evidence to meet entry requirements into Australia, border officials said.
However, when Judge Anthony Kelly overturned that decision, he criticized the hour-long airport interview, saying the player had not been given enough time to contact lawyers and tennis officials to discuss his predicament.
Djokovic had been given a medical dispensation by the Victoria state government on evidence that he had contracted COVID-19 last month – the second time he had become infected. The player, who has long spoken out against compulsory vaccination, confirmed in an interview that he was not vaccinated.
Some Australian media reported that the Australian Border Force was investigating potential inconsistencies in the travel form submitted by Djokovic and his whereabouts in the days leading up to his arrival in Australia.
In the document submitted to the court, Djokovic ticked "No" when asked that he had been abroad in the 14 days before. However, social media posts appeared to feature it on Christmas Day in Belgrade and December 31 in Spain.
The Australian Border Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Djokovic's attorneys at Hall & Wilcox declined to comment.
The Australian Open starts on January 17th. Djokovic has won the tournament, one of tennis’s four grand slams, nine times in the past three years.
The Spaniard Rafa Nadal, who tied on 20 majors with Djokovic and the Swiss Roger Federer, called the tense preparation for the tournament a "circus" and said the "fairest decision" had been made.
Nick Kyrgios said while supporting the vaccination he felt "as an Australian athlete embarrassed to see what this guy has done for us and the sport. I just don't think the way we deal with it is right."
However, former American player and pundit Pam Shriver warned on Twitter that the controversy may not be over: "When he plays, the booing gets deafening."
Public opinion in Australia, which is battling a wave of Omicron infections and where more than 90% of the adult population is double-vaccinated, has largely been against the player.
Resistance in Melbourne, home of the Open, was particularly loud after the city suffered the world's longest cumulative lockdown.
"We've had to go through vaccination protocols and bans for so long and he skirts in and does pretty much what he wants because he's the world's best tennis player," Melbourne resident Keith Moore told Reuters.