World number one tennis player Novak Djokovic was denied entry into Australia on Thursday after initially being granted a medical exemption from the country’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements so that he could play in the Australian Open.
The tennis star, who was left stranded at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport overnight amid a brewing political maelstrom, was issued a letter by the Australian government saying his visa had been denied and he would be removed from the country on Thursday, a source close to the tournament told Reuters.
Australia’s border force later confirmed his visa had been revoked.
The player would file an injunction to prevent him being sent back, the source said.
In the meantime, Djokovic was on his way to a Melbourne hotel.
In a dramatic series of events through the Melbourne night, Djokovic touched down at Tullamarine airport Wednesday about 11:30 pm local time after a 14-hour flight from Dubai, but was ushered into an isolation room under police guard when Australian officials said that his visa did not allow for medical exemptions.
The source told Reuters that the visa and paperwork that Djokovic had used to gain entry into the country was the same as three other players who had already arrived.
The move by the Australian government threatened to cause a diplomatic incident between Canberra and Belgrade.
“I’ve just finished my telephone conversation with Novak Djokovic,” Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic posted on Instagram.
“I told our Novak 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.
“In line with all norms of international law, Serbia will fight for Novak, truth and justice. Novak is strong, as we all know.”
Vucic had summoned the Australian ambassador in Belgrade and demanded that they immediately release Djokovic to play, Serbian media reported.
Morrison has faced an enormous backlash over his government’s decision to grant Djokovic a medical exemption from vaccination to play at the Open, leading to finger pointing between the Prime Minister’s conservative administration and the left-leaning Victorian government led by premier Dan Andrews.
Australia, especially the state of Victoria, has endured the world’s longest cumulative lockdown and an outbreak of the Omicron variant has sent case numbers to record levels.
Djokovic came in on an Emirates flight but when border officials contacted the Victorian government to ask if the state would formally support the world number one’s visa, it said it would not.
“The Federal Government has asked if we will support Novak Djokovic’s visa application to enter Australia,” Victoria’s acting Sports Minister Jaala Pulford said.
“We will not be providing Novak Djokovic with individual visa application support to participate in the 2022 Australian Open Grand Slam.”
“We’ve always been clear on two points: visa approvals are a matter for the Federal Government, and medical exemptions are a matter for doctors.”
The Serbian, who has previously declined to reveal his vaccination status, has won nine titles at Melbourne Park including the last three.
He confirmed on Tuesday that he had received a vaccination exemption to allow him to play at the Australian Open, which starts on January 17.
Australian tennis great Rod Laver, after whom the main show court at Melbourne Park in the state of Victoria is named, warned that Djokovic might face hostility from the local crowd.
“I think it might get ugly,” Laver 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.”
“Yes, you’re a great player and you’ve performed and won so many tournaments, so it can’t be physical. So what is the problem?”
Melbourne local Christine Wharton said it was a “disgrace”.
“We’ve all done the right thing, we’ve all gone out and got our jabs and our boosters, and we have someone that’s come from overseas and all of a sudden he’s been exempt and can play, and I think it’s an absolute disgrace and I won’t be watching it.”