Djokovic in detention; visa issue turns into Serbia vs Australia fight
Novak Djokovic was rescued by rains as the world number one was staring at defeat against Dominic Thiem in French Open match on Saturday. Photo: PTI

Djokovic in detention; visa issue turns into Serbia vs Australia fight

Two Australian panels had cleared the tennis player’s visa though he was not vaccinated; so why does border security want to deport him?

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Novak Djokovic, the world’s number one tennis player, was denied entry into Australia in a move that shocked his fans as well as his home country Serbia. The ace player, who arrived in Melbourne late on Wednesday to defend his title at the season-opening tennis major, had his Australian visa revoked rather dramatically.

Djokovic is currently at a government detention hotel and a court will decide on his deportation on Monday.

Media reports said he was held in the airport for hours together before the Australian Border Force (ABF) said he would not be allowed in. The ABF issued a statement on Thursday saying that Djokovic failed to provide “appropriate evidence to meet entry requirements and his visa has been subsequently cancelled”.

Also read: Novak Djokovic denied entry to Australia, his visa stands cancelled

“Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia,” said the ABF statement. “The ABF can confirm Mr Djokovic had access to his phone.​” He was taken from the airport to a government detention hotel, where he will wait till a court decides on Monday on his deportation, said BBC.

What triggered the row

Djokovic had earlier shared a post on Instagram saying he had obtained exemption from vaccination to play in the Australian Open tournament. He contracted COVID at least once, and has previously expressed his opposition to vaccination. ABF personnel said the Serbian did not provide ‘appropriate evidence’ for entry.

Per tournament organisers cited by BBC, he had been granted medical exemption by two Australian bodies — via independent medical panels of Tennis Australia and Victoria state.

This caused massive outrage in Australia, which has had bad outbreaks of COVID before, and is currently seeing yet another surge in cases. Over 90% of Australians aged 16 or more are fully vaccinated. Since it’s an island nation, Australia has had strict border control on and off over the past two years, and some of its citizens are yet to get permission to travel within and outside the country.

The precise reason for the exemption granted to Djokovic has not been disclosed, but officials said contracting COVID in the past six months did present a criterion for this. Hence, Australians demanded to know why someone who was not vaccinated was being let into the country for a sporting event.

Team Djokovic’s contention

The 34-year-old tennis star’s team is challenging the ABF’s decision. A hearing at the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia is slated for Monday, January 10.

While Australians raged over the exemption granted to Djokovic, Serbians were equally furious over how their favourite sports star was treated at a foreign airport. “The whole of Serbia is with him and our authorities are undertaking all measures in order that the maltreatment of the world’s best tennis player ends as soon as possible,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who spoke with Djokovic over the phone. “In line with all standards of international public law, Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic, justice and truth,” he added.

Djokovic’s father, meanwhile, said his son was ‘held captive for five hours’, and ought to be given a hero’s welcome back home.

Diplomatic spat

Responding to what is increasingly becoming a diplomatic tussle, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Djokovic was not singled out and humiliated; rather, the nation was just implementing rules that apply to all. “Rules are rules,” he said.

What’s intriguing is why Djokovic was given exemption in the first place when the Australian panels knew he was not vaccinated. Also, as the BBC report pointed out, it wasn’t just Djokovic — several of the 26 athletes who applied for exemption were granted one.

This led to the theory that what got the Serbian player into trouble was not the non-vaccination per se, but his being vocal about it. “When you get people making public statements — of what they say they have, and what they are going to do, and what their claims are — well, they draw significant attention to themselves,” said Morrison, in a reference to the tennis player’s anti-vaccine stance.

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