Regardless of who made an error on the visa or the vaccination waiver, the reality on Friday for men’s tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic was that he is spending one his important religious holidays in an Australian detention hotel, working on his challenge against deportation.
Djokovic has been receiving calls from Serbia, including from his parents and the President, hoping to boost his spirits. A priest from the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Melbourne sought permission from immigration authorities to visit the nine-time Australian Open champion, to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas.
“Our Christmas is rich in many customs and it is so important that a priest visits him,” the church’s dean, Milorad Locard, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “The whole thing around this event is appalling. That he has to spend Christmas in detention … it is unthinkable,” he said.
Djokovic’s supporters gathered outside the Park Hotel, used to house refugees and asylum seekers near downtown Melbourne, waving flags and banners.
They mixed with human rights advocates, who were there more to highlight the plight for other longer-term people in detention, many of whom have complained about their living conditions and exposure to the coronavirus in the pandemic.
A day after both the Prime Minister and the Home Affairs Minister said that it was the responsibility of the individual to have their documents in order, it seemed to dawn on people locally that whatever mistakes happened in the process, one of the highest-profile athletes in the world was in detention.
Djokovic flew to Australia, confident that his paper work was in order, given he had been approved by Victoria state government for a medical exemption.
That same evidence did not comply with the Australian government’s regulations.
So, instead of preparing to defend his Australian Open title, and bid to win a men’s-record 21st major title, he has been preparing for a court battle in the Federal Circuit Court on Monday to challenge his visa cancellation and deportation.
Attention is moving away from Djokovic’s vaccination status and onto questions about how the nine-time Australian Open champion, a regular visitor to Melbourne, could have wound up in this situation.
Even some who have been critical of Djokovic in the past are now in his corner.
“Look I definitely believe in taking action, I got vaccinated because of others and for my mum’s health, but how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad,” Nick Kyrgios, Australian player and outspoken critic of some of Djokovic’s opinions on vaccinations, posted on Twitter. “This is one of our great champions but at the end of the day, he is human. Do better,” he said.
Djokovic’s wife Jelena Djokovic thanked Novak’s supporters on social media.
“Thank you dear people, all around the world for using your voice to send love to my husband. I am taking a deep breath to calm down and find gratitude (and understanding) in this moment for all that is happening,” Jelena posted on Twitter.
Djokovic has been a vaccine sceptic, and has declined to acknowledge if he has had shots for COVID-19, but there can’t be any doubt he travelled to Australia, arriving just before midnight on Wednesday, believing his paperwork was all in order.
The medical-exemption applications from players, their teams and tennis officials were vetted by two independent panels of medical experts at the state level. Djokovic had an approved exemption allowing him into the tournament.
But when Djokovic landed at the airport, the Australian government’s Border Force cancelled Djokovic’s visa, saying that he failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements.
Australia’s strict COVID-19 laws dictate that incoming travellers must have had two shots of a recommended vaccine, or must have an exemption with a genuine medical reason, such as an acute condition, to avoid it.
Tennis Australia said Djokovic’s request for an exemption was granted following a rigorous review process.
Neither Tennis Australia nor Djokovic revealed the reason why he sought an exemption.
The Australian Border Force rejected his exemption, terming it as “invalid” and cancelled his visa. He was then moved him to the immigration hotel. His lawyers worked urgently to ensure he could stay in Australia until Monday, when a federal judge will hear his challenge, a week before the Australian Open is set to start.
After the news broke of the visa cancellation, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley defended the completely legitimate application and process, and insisted there was no special treatment for Djokovic.
Tiley said that only 26 people connected with the tournament applied for a medical exemption to avoid the rule that all players, staff, officials and fans needed to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to enter Melbourne Park and only a handful were granted. None, expect Djokovic, who posted it himself on social media, have been publicly identified. Now, two others are under investigation.
(With inputs from Agencies)