An Australian court upheld a government decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa on Sunday, ending the unvaccinated tennis superstar’s hopes of winning the Australian Open and racking up a record-breaking 21 men’s Grand Slam titles.
Ruling on a case that has gripped Australia and the sporting world for more than a week, a three-judge bench of the Federal Court heard government lawyers’ arguments that Djokovic’s continued presence risked whipping up anti-vaccination sentiment during Australia’s worst outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
A medical exemption that allowed the Serbian tennis world number one to enter the country without being vaccinated had sparked fury in Australia and became a political issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has to call a federal election before May.
Djokovic is appealing Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s use of discretionary powers to cancel his visa on the grounds that he was a threat to public order because his presence would encourage anti-vaccination sentiment amidst Australia’s worst outbreak of the virus.
“We would hope to be in a position to identify to the parties later in the afternoon what the course is that we propose,” Chief Justice James Allsop told the court as he adjourned the case after hearing from lawyers for the government and the champion tennis player.
The looming verdict of the full bench of three judges of the Federal Court will decide the fate of the world number one tennis player after a rollercoaster 10 days that saw him detained by immigration authorities, released and then detained again ahead of a tournament that starts on Monday.
The Serbian champion was escorted to his lawyer’s office by immigration officials to attend the virtual court hearing on Sunday morning, having spent Saturday night back in an immigration detention hotel.
Nick Wood, acting for Djokovic, pointed to how the player competed in the Australian Open and other major tournaments around the world last year without provoking protests or unrest.
“If there was any foundation for thinking that Mr Djokovic’s presence and participation at a tennis tournament might somehow lead to this anti-vax sentiment, one would expect that it would be supported by some kind of evidence about anti-vax protests or rallies or the like at tennis events,” Wood said.
But Wood told the court that nothing of the kind had been identified by the minister in his decision to cancel the visa.
Wood said that instead, the possibility was a forced removal of Djokovic may spur the anti-vaccination movement and protests.
Stephen Lloyd, for the government, said Djokovic’s opposition to vaccination could be seen not only in his public statements but also because he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 even after vaccines became widely available.
The government lawyer acknowledged that there was a risk that cancelling Djokovic’s visa could spark “unrest” among people who disagreed.
But, Lloyd argued that given Djokovic’s status as a high-profile athlete, there was a danger that his stance and behaviour could encourage others outside the established anti-vaccination community to flout health safety guidelines.
“The minister took the view that his presence in Australia would encourage people to emulate his apparent disregard for those kinds of safety measures,” Lloyd said.
He cited Djokovic’s participation in a media interview and photoshoot when he knew he was infected with COVID-19 last month.
Djokovic had been granted a visa, as his recent infection provided the basis for him seeking a medical exemption from Australia’s vaccination requirements to play in the Open.
That exemption 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.