Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic won a temporary reprieve in his deportation from Australia on Thursday but is set to spend the night in an immigration detention facility as he fights to remain in the country.
The vaccine-skeptic Serb was detained on arrival at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport having failed to “provide appropriate evidence” of double vaccination or a medical exemption.
Djokovic had jetted into Melbourne on Wednesday hoping to defend his Australian Open crown and to bid for an unprecedented 21st Grand Slam title, despite Australia’s tough Covid restrictions.
Instead of a conquering champion’s welcome, he was questioned at the airport overnight before having his visa revoked and being transferred to a Melbourne immigration detention facility.
After an emergency court appeal, a judge ordered that the controversial star would not be deported before Monday when a final hearing will be held.
– From court to court –
For months there had been speculation about whether Djokovic would play in the January 17-30 tournament.
Then, ahead of his arrival, a jubilant Djokovic boasted on Instagram that he had scored an unexpected medical exemption to play.
The 34-year-old has refused to reveal his vaccine status but has previously voiced opposition to being jabbed. He has contracted Covid at least once.
Amid widespread outcry at Djokovic’s apparent star treatment, conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “rules are rules and there are no special cases.”
Australians have been unable to travel or welcome family from overseas for much of the last two years.
Stephen Parnis, a former Australian Medical Association vice-president, said the exemption sent an “appalling message” to people trying to stop the rampant spread of Covid-19.
The country recorded more than 60,000 cases in the last 24 hours, after being Covid-free for much of the pandemic.
– Djokovic, justice and truth –
But the Serb’s treatment on arrival prompted fury among his fans and a fiercely worded rebuke from Serbia’s president.
“The whole of Serbia is with him and… our authorities are undertaking all measures in order that maltreatment of the world’s best tennis player ends as soon as possible,” President Aleksandar Vucic said after speaking with Djokovic over the phone.
“In line with all standards of international public law, Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic, justice and truth.”
Sanja, a 35-year-old Serbian-Australian fan, had been looking forward to seeing him play in Melbourne.
“He went through a civil war to play tennis. He’s done nothing wrong to the world,” she said.
For his part, Rafael Nadal — who like Djokovic and Federer is stuck on a record-equalling 20 Grand Slam wins — said his rival must face the consequences of not being vaccinated.
“He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences,” the Spaniard said.
– ‘No special favour’ –
Djokovic is believed to be detained at the Park Hotel, which the Australian government terms an “Alternative Place of Detention”.
As word of Djokovic’s arrival spread, Serbian flag-festooned supporters, anti-vaccine campaigners, refugee advocates and police descended on the already controversial facility.
Supporter Gordana said she was there to show support and to “free Djokovic to play.”
Currently around 32 refugees and asylum seekers are being held at the Park Hotel, after being brought for medical treatment from offshore detention facilities.
Detainees cannot leave the hotel and nobody is allowed in or out except staff.
The facility gained notoriety last year when a fire in the building forced refugees and asylum seekers to be evacuated, and maggots were allegedly found in the food.
In October, 21 men reportedly contracted Covid at the facility, which has been the site of regular protests.
Detainee Mehdi Ali told AFP that Djokovic is his favourite tennis player, and that he was saddened by the prospect of the star being held there.
“The media will talk about us more, the whole world probably, which is so sad, just because Djokovic would be here for a few days,” he said.
Australia’s leaders — wary of public sentiment and mounting Covid problems ahead of an election — have begun pointing fingers over the saga.
John Findley, an Australian immigration lawyer, said the visa revocation was questionable and seems to have come from “a pile on from social media.”
“If they see he has provided false information, he must have a chance to answer that,” he said.
Experts said that charge could bring a three-year ban from applying for another Australian visa.
With 10 days before the tournament begins, it is far from clear that Djokovic will be able to play, even if he wins his challenge.
Judge Anthony Kelly warned that justice will move at its own pace, and through all necessary appeals. “The tail won’t be tagging the dog here,” he said.
Tournament organisers also face tough questions.
Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said Djokovic had no special treatment and just 26 of the approximately 3,000 players and support staff travelling to Australia for the tournament had applied for a vaccine exemption. Only a handful had been successful.
Those individuals also look set to face added scrutiny now.