Tennis star Novak Djokovic faces an 11th-hour court hearing on Sunday that will decide if he can defend his Australian Open title or must leave the country – the climax to days of drama over COVID-19 entry requirements and his unvaccinated status.
The build-up to the tournament, which starts on Monday and which Djokovic has won nine times previously, has been virtually eclipsed by the roller-coaster controversy over Djokovic’s visa, his treatment by immigration officials, and the government’s handling of the case.
Justice David O’Callaghan set a Federal Court hearing for 9:30 a.m. Sunday. Three judges will hear the appeal and their decision will be final, the court said.
Djokovic, who is the men’s top ranked player and is chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win, spent Saturday night at Melbourne’s Park Hotel.
Djokovic has declined to be vaccinated against coronavirus and had sought to enter the country with a medical exemption from rules mandating all visitors to be vaccinated.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke cancelled Djokovic’s visa again on Friday night, prompting the appeal by his lawyers that will be heard on Sunday.
Court documents released after an initial Federal Court hearing on Saturday showed Hawke had justified his decision on the grounds that Djokovic’s presence could whip up more anti-vaccination sentiment in Australia at a time that the country is in the midst of its worst outbreak of the virus.
“Although I… accept that Mr Djokovic poses a negligible individual risk of transmitting COVID-19 to other persons, I nonetheless consider that his presence may be a risk to the health of the Australian community,” Hawke said in a letter to Djokovic and his legal team.
This explanation in Djokovic’s affidavit was more detailed than the brief statement Hawke released on Friday, saying his decision was based on “health and good order grounds”.
Djokovic’s lawyers said they would argue that deportation would only further fan anti-vaccine sentiment and would be as much a threat to disorder and public health as letting him stay.
‘TIRED OF THE SITUATION’
On Saturday afternoon, about a dozen refugee activists chanted “stop the torture…let them out” as Djokovic and Border Force guards drove into the underground garage of the Park Hotel, which is also being used to hold 33 asylum seekers and travellers in COVID-19 quarantine.
A man cycling past the hotel shouted: “Go home, Novak!” Djokovic’s medical exemption from vaccine requirements to play in the Open prompted widespread anger in Australia, which has undergone some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 lockdowns and where more than 90% of adults are vaccinated, but where hospitalisation rates continue to hit record highs.
The controversy over the tennis player has become a political touchstone for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he prepares for an election due by May. His government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security during the pandemic, but it has faced criticism for its handling of Djokovic’s visa application.
Djokovic’s leading rivals have become increasingly impatient with the uncertainty hanging over the draw and the cloud hanging over their sport.
“Honestly I’m little bit tired of the situation because I just believe that it’s important to talk about our sport, about tennis,” Spaniard Rafa Nadal, who is tied on 20 major titles with Djokovic, told reporters at Melbourne Park, where the event will be played.
German Alexander Zverev, the world number three, said Djokovic had been treated unfairly and that the Serb might have been used as a political pawn by Australian authorities, something Canberra has denied.
“This is obviously not a nice thing for everyone, for him especially. But don’t question his legacy because of this,” Zverev said.
Djokovic, who is scheduled to play fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovi in the first round of the Open, could still withdraw and leave Australia of his own accord rather than suffer the humiliation of being deported.