Djokovic in limbo amid Australian political tussle over COVID vaccination status

The 34-year-old tennis star hasn't divulged his COVID-19 vaccination status

January 06, 2022, 8:53 AM

HONG KONG and JAHORINA, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- The world’s top-ranked tennis player, Novak Djokovic, remains on Australian soil -- for now at least -- after having his visa to enter the country cancelled on arrival in Melbourne late on Wednesday evening for the Australian Open.

Djokovic’s legal team launched a challenge against a decision to deport him, but he will need to wait until Monday to learn if he can stay on to play in the tournament, which begins on Jan. 17.

In the meantime, it appears that the 34-year-old Serb will be staying in ​immigration detention at the Park Hotel in inner Melbourne, which normally houses asylum seekers.

In a statement, the Australian Border Force confirmed that Djkovoic’s evidence for a medical exemption did not meet the requirements for entry after arriving from Dubai.

PHOTO: Tennis player Novak Djokovic taken on Jan 4, 2022 before heading for Melbourne.
Tennis player Novak Djokovic taken on Jan 4, 2022 before heading for Melbourne.
EPN/Newscom

Among the considerations raised at the court hearing on Thursday was whether Djokovic was able to be moved to another hotel with tennis facilities. Tennis Australia also made a request that the issue be sorted by Tuesday because it would muck up scheduling. To that, Judge Anthony Kelly said "the tail won't be wagging the dog here."

The Serbian tennis star announced on Tuesday evening that he’d been granted a medical exemption to play at the Open, where he’s chasing a record 21 grand slam titles.

The announcement sparked a massive public backlash down under, with social media platforms, letters-to-the-editor and talkback radio in Australia flooded with criticism towards Djokovic, who has refused to divulge his COVID-19 vaccination status but last year said was opposed to it.

Omicron cases have exploded in Australia in recent weeks since domestic borders were opened, and Victorian residents have suffered some of the strictest COVID-19 controls in the world over the past two years. More than 90% of Australia's over-16 population is fully vaccinated, but some people still cannot travel internationally or interstate because of the measures.

There appears to be a blame game between the federal and state governments over the Djokovic debacle. Minister Karen Andrews, who is leading the charge for the Australian government, says that "the Victorian government has questions to answer." But the Victorian government denies there’s any "finger-pointing," saying "State Governments in Australia can’t grant a visa. That’s a fact."

Australia is expected to hold a federal election sometime in the coming months, which could help explain why the claws are out and why political points are out to be won here -- and Australia is currently run by a Liberal Party government, while the Victorian state is run by the rival Labour Party -- so the friction was already there.

PHOTO: A protestor holds signs outside the Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is believed to be held, in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 6, 2022.
A protestor holds signs outside the Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is believed to be held, in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 6, 2022.
Sandra Sanders/Reuters

In Serbia, where support for Djokovic is usually unwavering, members of his family spoke to supporters on Thursday at a rally in front of the National Assembly.

"The biggest sports-diplomatic scandal in history," Djordje Djokovic, Novak's youngest brother, said. "Novak did not violate any law, he was in touch with the organizers all the time, he had the same documents as some colleagues, but he was the only one to get a ban."

The tennis star's father, Srdjan Djokovic, likened his son's isolation in Australia to the trials faced by Jesus.

'"They are trying to crucify Novak in the same way, to underestimate him, to throw him to his knees, to do everything to him," the elder Djokovic told the crowd.

And there is now a diplomatic spat at play, with Serbia's leaders clearly slighted over Djokovic’s treatment down under.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Djokovic was a victim of "harassment" and vowed to help through diplomatic channels. Vucic said the whole nation was behind him.

Morrison said the decision was not linked to "any particular position in relation to Serbia," adding that the country was a “good friend” of Australia.

PHOTO: A billboard depicting Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, on a building in Belgrade, Serbia, Jan. 6, 2022.
A billboard depicting Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, on a building in Belgrade, Serbia, Jan. 6, 2022.
Darko Vojinovic/AP

Serbia's Viktor Troicki, formerly the world's 12th-ranked player, said he's spoken to Djokovic several times since the tennis star landed in Australia.

"Everything turned against him," Troicki told ABC News by phone from Belgrade on Thursday. "The politicians were almost competing who will make his life more miserable, justifying that he had a wrong visa."

Troicki said Djokovic was isolated in "catastrophic conditions." The hotel he was in was "not a hotel, really," Troicki said, adding that he'd stayed there previously.

"I am very sorry all of this is happening, but I am also surprised that there is not much support from the ATP and AO for a player who got all necessary clearances to attend the tournament," Troicki said. "It's unheard of."

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