World number one tennis player, Novak Djokovic, is holed up in a quarantine hotel in Melbourne after his lawyers secured an agreement for him to remain in the country for a court hearing on Monday in his case to overturn the federal government ban on his entry.
He was denied entry into Australia on Thursday amid a storm of protest about a decision to grant him a medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination requirements to play in the Australian Open.
The saga, fuelled by domestic political point-scoring about the country’s handling of a record surge in new COVID-19 infections, has created an international row with Serbia’s president claiming his nation’s most celebrated sportsman was being harassed.
“There are no special cases, rules are rules,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a televised media briefing. “We will continue to make the right decisions when it comes to securing Australian borders in relation to this pandemic.”
Djokovic, who has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status while publicly criticising mandatory vaccines, kicked off the furor when he said on Instagram on Tuesday he had received a medical exemption to pursue a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam win at the Open starting January 17.
The announcement prompted an outcry in Australia, particularly in tournament host city of Melbourne, which has endured the world’s longest cumulative lockdown to ward off the coronavirus.
Australia’s adult vaccination rate of about 91% is high by international standards and there is little public sympathy for those who refuse to be inoculated, with the Omicron variant sending case numbers to record levels.
However, the move by the Australian government to block Djokovic’s entry caused ructions between Canberra and Belgrade.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Twitter he had spoken with Djokovic, giving the reassurance “that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately.”
Morrison said he was aware that “representations have been made” by the Serbian embassy in Canberra and denied the claims of harassment. Morrison said it was an individual case and noted that Djokovic had garnered attention, a possible reference to his anti-vaccination comments and Instagram post.
Djokovic’s father told media in Serbia that his son was ushered into an isolation room under police guard when he touched down at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport at about 11:30 pm (1230 GMT) on Wednesday after a 14-hour flight from Dubai.
Nick Wood, a lawyer for Djokovic, earlier told Judge Anthony Kelly that Tennis Australia had advised they needed to know about his participation in the tournament by Tuesday. In response, Kelly said “the tail won’t be wagging the dog here.”
Djokovic’s fate is tied to a political fight in Australia, characterised by fingerpointing between Morrison’s conservative administration and the left-leaning Victorian government led by Premier Dan Andrews.
The squabbles rumbled on as Australia’s daily COVID-19 infections hit a record high for the fourth consecutive day, with new cases exceeding 72,000, overwhelming hospitals and causing labour shortages.
Under Australia’s federal system, states and territories can issue exemptions from vaccination requirements to enter their jurisdictions. However, the federal government controls international borders and can challenge such exemptions.
Djokovic travelled to Australia after receiving an exemption from the Victorian government. That exemption – the reasons for which are not known – supported his federal government-issued visa.
On his arrival, however, Federal Border Force officials at the airport said Djokovic was unable to justify the grounds for his exemption.
The Australian task force that sets the exemption parameters lists the risk of serious cardiac illness from inoculation and a COVID-19 infection within the past six months as qualifiers. However, Morrison said on Thursday that Tennis Australia had been advised weeks ago that a recent infection did not meet the criteria for exemption.
Tennis Australia and Victoria government officials said Djokovic had received no preferential treatment, adding that he was among “a handful” of approvals for exemptions in an anonymous and independent assessment of 26 applications.
The Serbian has won nine titles at Melbourne Park including the last three, but he will likely face a tough crowd if he takes to the court next week.
“I think it might get ugly,” Australian tennis great Rod Laver, after whom the main showcourt is named, told News Corp. “I’d think the Victorian people would be thinking ‘Yes I’d love to see him play and compete, but at the same time there’s a right way and a wrong way’.
Spanish champion Rafael Nadal told reporters in Melbourne that he felt sorry for Djokovic “but at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago. He makes his own decision.”