The men’s tennis world number one, Novak Djokovic, was given a COVID vaccine medical exemption to enter Australia because he contracted the illness last month, his lawyers have argued in court documents.
Djokovic was denied entry at the Melbourne airport after border officials cancelled his visa for failing to meet its entry requirement that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
In a court filing on Saturday before a hearing on Monday over his visa cancellation, Djokovic said he had received the exemption from tournament organiser Tennis Australia, with a follow-up letter from the Department of Home Affairs saying he was allowed into the country.
The Serbian player, hoping to win his 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open later this month, is on his third day in immigration detention in Melbourne – a case that has caused a sporting, political and diplomatic furore.
A vocal opponent of vaccine mandates, Djokovic has been confined in a modest hotel after his visa was cancelled due to problems with the medical exemption from the country’s immigration requirement for coronavirus vaccination that he presented.
The drama has caused tensions between Serbia and Australia and has also become a flashpoint for opponents of vaccine mandates around the world.
“I explained that I had been recently infected with COVID in December 2021 and on this basis I was entitled to a medical exemption in accordance with Australian Government rules and guidance,” Djokovic was cited as saying in the court filing about his experience being detained at Melbourne Airport.
Djokovic said he told Australian Border Force officers: “I had correctly made my Australian Travel Declaration and otherwise satisfied all necessary requirements in order to lawfully enter Australia on my visa.”
Djokovic returned his first positive COVID-19 test on December 16 but by December 30 “had not had a fever or respiratory symptoms of COVID-19 in the last 72 hours”, the filing said.
On January 1, it said, he received a document from Home Affairs telling him his responses indicated that he met “the requirements for a quarantine-free arrival into Australia”.
The federal court has ordered Home Affairs to file its response by Sunday. The Australian Open starts on January 17.
Meanwhile, on December 14, Djokovic attended a Euroleague basketball game between Red Star and Barcelona in a packed sports hall in Belgrade. He was photographed hugging several players of both teams, including some who soon later tested positive.
The Belgrade tennis federation, in a Facebook post after the December 17 ceremony, reported that Djokovic had handed over cups and awards to the best young players in 2021.
The event, held at the Novak Tennis centre in the Serbian capital, was attended only by the award winners “due to epidemiological measures related to the coronavirus pandemic”, said the federation statement.
It was accompanied by several photos of Djokovic, posing with the federation’s officials and some 20 young players holding cups and awards.
No one was wearing a mask.
Djokovic attended another gathering on December 16, when the Serbia national postal service honoured him by launching a series of stamps featuring him and his sports achievements.
He published a photo from the ceremony on Instagram on December 17.
Many countries allow a recent COVID infection as a reason for an exemption from vaccine requirements. Australia’s federal government released a letter soon after Djokovic arrived showing that it had notified Tennis Australia that was not necessarily the case in the country.
The federal and Victorian state governments and Tennis Australia have denied responsibility for the dispute.
Djokovic’s court filing confirmed a media report that he had asked to be moved to lodgings with access to a tennis court but that his request was denied. The Park Hotel, where he is staying, is also home to dozens of asylum seekers trying to enter the country.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the player had been provided with gluten-free food, tools to exercise and a SIM card.
“He’s staying in Park Hotel until the final decision is made,” Brnabic told Serbian media.
“We’ve managed to make sure gluten-free food is delivered to him, as well as exercising tools, a laptop and a SIM card so that he is able to be in contact with his family.”
“It’s a positive tone from the Australian side. The Serbian government is ready to provide all the guarantees necessary for Novak to be allowed to enter Australia, the Serbian president [Aleksandar Vucic] is also involved,” Brnabic said.
Djokovic’s filing said he had expressed “shock”, “surprise” and “confusion” when he was held overnight, and had a bed prepared near his airport interview room so he could rest while waiting until the morning when he would be able to reach legal representatives and Tennis Australia, the filing says.
Customs officers ultimately “pressured” Djokovic to undertake an interview before he had spoken to either, the filing said.
Tennis Australia said it never knowingly misled players and had always urged players to be vaccinated, after News Corp papers published a document from the organising body apparently advising players on ways to enter the country with a medical exemption from vaccination.
“We have always been consistent in our communications to players that vaccination is the best course of action – not just as the right thing to do to protect themselves and others, but also as the best course of action to ensure they could arrive in Australia,” Tennis Australia said in a statement quoted by local media.
“We reject completely that the playing group was knowingly misled.”
Tennis Australia’s advice was based on the contents of a federal government website to which it had been referred by the federal health minister, the statement added.
Separately, Czech player Renata Voracova, who was also detained in the same hotel as Djokovic and had her visa revoked after issues with her exemption, left Australia on Saturday, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.
Voracova, a 38-year-old doubles specialist, decided to leave, telling Czech news site idnes.cz she would not challenge because of the time it would take to wait and not train ahead of the Australian Open.
“(Renata) Voracova left Australia on Saturday based on her own decision to end her participation in the tournament due to complications with her visas,” the Czech ministry said.
“The decision was not based on her expulsion from the country,” it said.