‘Rules are rules’: Australia denies entry to Novak Djokovic

Authorities say tennis star ‘failed to provide’ necessary evidence for vaccine exemption amid surging COVID pandemic.

Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning match against Taylor Fritz
Australia has imposed strict measures to combat COVID-19, including requiring full vaccination for people coming into the country [File: Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Australia has cancelled Novak Djokovic’s visa and denied entry to the men’s number one tennis player, the country’s border agency announced, saying the sportsman “failed to provide appropriate evidence” to meet entry requirements.

The Serb earlier said he had obtained a medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination in order to play in the Australian Open, which starts in less than two weeks.

But in a statement on Thursday, the Australian Border Force (ABF) said “Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled”.

Djokovic was taken from Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport to the Park Hotel, a government detention hotel notorious for several coronavirus outbreaks, pending his removal. He is expected to be flown out later on Thursday, although Djokovic’s lawyers have filed an injunction, which has now been rescheduled for 6pm (07:00 GMT).

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed Djokovic’s visa had been cancelled on social media.

“Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant,” he said on Twitter.

Later, at a media conference in Canberra, Morrison told reporters that Djokovic had failed to provide sufficient proof for why he should have a medical exemption from vaccination and denied the player had been “singled out”.

A man with a Serbian flag waits to greet the men's number one tennis player Novak Djokovic at the arrivals hall of Melbourne international airport
A lone Serbian fan awaits the arrival of Novak Djokovic at Melbourne airport. The nine-time Australian Open winner was denied entry to Australia and is expected to be deported on Thursday [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Australia has imposed strict measures to combat COVID-19, including requiring full vaccination, with exemptions for medical reasons, for people entering the country from overseas.

The Australian task force that sets the exemption lists the risk of serious cardiac illness from inoculation and a COVID-19 infection within the past six months as qualifiers. However, Morrison said on Thursday that Tennis Australia had been advised several months ago that a recent infection did not meet the criteria for exemption.

Tennis Australia and government officials said Djokovic received no preferential treatment, adding he was among “a handful” of the 26 people who applied who were approved in an anonymous and independent process.

Public outcry

People in Melbourne endured a long and strict lockdown to bring cases under control in 2020 and are now worried about a surge in cases fuelled by the more transmissible Omicron variant.

Many were furious that the unvaccinated player had been granted a visa to play in the Grand Slam tournament, which he has won nine times, and the outcry prompted Morrison to promise to deport Djokovic if he did not provide sufficient evidence to support the exemption.

“There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever,” the prime minister said during a news conference on Wednesday.

In a dramatic series of events through the Melbourne night, Djokovic touched down at Tullamarine Airport at approximately 11:30pm local time (12:30 GMT) on Wednesday after a 14-hour flight from Dubai, but was ushered into an isolation room under police surveillance when Australian officials said that his visa did not allow for medical exemptions.

A few hours after their arrival Goran Ivanisevic, the player’s coach, shared a picture on his Instagram account, with the comment and a series of emojis: “Not the most usual trip Down Under.”

Djokovic’s case had sparked confusion, with the government for the state of Victoria – where Melbourne is the capital – saying it would not support his visa application.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews clarified the process on Wednesday.

“While the Victorian government and Tennis Australia may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border,” Andrews said.

“If an arriving individual is not vaccinated, they must provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons to be able to access the same travel arrangement as fully vaccinated travellers.”

The move by the Australian government is already causing ructions between Canberra and Belgrade.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he had spoken to Djokovic on the phone, telling him that “the whole of Serbia is with him and that our authorities are undertaking all measures in order that maltreatment of the world’s best tennis player ends as soon as possible”.

“In line with all standards of international public law, Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic, justice and truth.”

The player’s father called for his son to receive a hero’s welcome on his return to Serbia.

“Our pride, our Novak is returning … We should all welcome him as deserved!” Srdjan Djokovic said on Instagram.

He claimed his son had been “held captive for five hours” at Melbourne airport.

“This is a fight for a libertarian world, this is not just a fight for Novak, but a fight for the whole world,” he told Sputnik’s Serbia media outlet.

Djokovic’s anti-vaccination stance could leave him facing a tough crowd in Melbourne if he were allowed to compete for his tenth title at the Open.

“I think it might get ugly,” Australian tennis great Rod Laver told News Corp. “I’d think the Victorian people would be thinking ‘Yes I’d love to see him play and compete, but at the same time there’s a right way and a wrong way’.”

Paul McNamee, a former Australian Open tournament director and tennis professional, said Djokovic had followed the required steps to obtain a visa and should be allowed to play.

“So he deserves his day on court, not in court, in my opinion,” McNamee told public broadcaster ABC TV.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies