Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 ranked men’s tennis player, traveled all Wednesday from Dubai to Australia, a journey that was to begin his defense of the Australian Open singles championship.
On Thursday, he was told he would have to leave the country, after a 12-hour standoff with government officials at a Melbourne airport, where he was kept in a room overnight due to questions about the evidence supporting a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine. The exception should allow Djokovic, a 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion and one of the sport’s biggest stars, to compete in the Australian Open, even though he has not been vaccinated.
It was not immediately clear whether Djokovic would appeal the verdict in Australia’s courts. A spokesman for the tennis star did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The chain of events represented a sensational turnaround for Djokovic, who in just over 24 hours went from receiving a special last-minute permit to enter Australia to board an intercontinental plane, to being essentially told by the Australian Prime Minister , that he was not welcome in the country.
At one point, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić even became involved, talking to Djokovic and criticizing the Australian government for its treatment of the country’s biggest sports star.
The pandemic has created all sorts of chaos with sports over the last two years. The Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed for a year. Major events took place in empty stadiums. Star players have been sent into isolation just before their competitions after testing positive for the virus.
The situation with Djokovic, one of the most polarizing figures in the sport, was a match for any of them. It was about a confrontation between a sports superstar and the most powerful leader in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, where officials, citizens, media and even some teammates criticized the exception, which apparently caused the sudden shift.
The decision looks set to be another hotspot in the debate over vaccines and how to deal with the pandemic now, especially in Australia, where gender equality is considered a sacred principle – and where “tennis”, as Open is called, is also loved by what is often seems like a whole nation of sports fanatics.
In a statement on Thursday, the Australian Border Guard promised to “continue to ensure that those arriving at our border comply with our laws and entry requirements. ABF can confirm that Mr Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements for Australia, and his visa has subsequently been canceled. “
For Djokovic, it was the latest and without a doubt the most horrific controversy in a career that has been filled with them, almost all of which have been brought about by a master’s behavior that can be as deliberate and inflexible off the field as he is on. that.
Djokovic has never been pale in expressing his unconventional views on science and medicine (he once expressed support for the idea that prayer and faith could purify toxic water), and he has on several occasions declared his opposition to vaccine mandates and said, that vaccination is private. and personal decision that should not be mandated. However, he had not revealed until this week whether he had been vaccinated.
Tuesday he has announced on Twitter that he had been granted a medical dispensation from the requirement that all persons entering the country must be vaccinated or quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. He later boarded a plane en route to Australia from Dubai.
In a statement later that day, Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia, explained that players seeking a waiver should pass patterns with two panels of medical experts. The process involved editing personal information to ensure privacy.
“Fair and independent protocols were established to assess applications for medical exemption, which will enable us to ensure that the Australian Open 2022 is safe and comfortable for all,” Tiley said. “The key to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was duly taken into account.”
Djokovic landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport around 11:30 pm on Wednesday. By that time, he had become the central figure in a firestorm over how he had been allowed to enter Australia, which is experiencing a surprising increase in Covid-19 cases.
The country has led one of the most successful matches against Covid-19, but it has come at a high price. Strict lockdowns have lasted for several months. International borders were largely closed until recently. Inbound travelers had to adhere to an expensive, two-week quarantine on arrival. For long periods, even domestic travel between states was also prohibited. The country has only experienced 2,200 deaths, but since the border opened last year, it has now dealt with more than 30,000 cases a day.
When Djokovic flew to Melbourne, Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison relied on government authority to deny Djokovic access.
“Any person seeking to enter Australia must comply with our border requirements,” Morrison said.
“We are awaiting his presentation and what evidence he gives us to support it,” Morrison added. “If the evidence is insufficient, then he will not be treated any differently than anyone else and he will be on the next flight home. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None at all.”
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The global rise. The coronavirus is spreading faster than ever in early 2022, but the last days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant is producing less serious disease than previous waves. As such, governments are focusing more on expanding vaccination than limiting the spread.
On Wednesday, Jaala Pulford, the acting sports minister for the state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, where the Open is being held, said the state government would not support Djokovic’s visa application. Pulford wrote on Twitter that “visa approval is a matter for the federal government.”
Her statement followed the comments of Australia’s Home Secretary Karen Andrews, who had issued a statement noting that the government had the authority to block Djokovic from entering the country. In a statement entitled “Australia’s border rules apply to all”, Andrews said that “while the Victorian government and Tennis Australia can allow a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth Government that will enforce our claim to Australian border. “
“No individual competing at the Australian Open will receive any special treatment,” Andrews said.
The decision to grant Djokovic a medical dispensation from two panels of experts was met with skepticism and resignation from some of his teammates; outrage from Australians.
“I think if it was me who was not vaccinated, I would not get an exception,” Jamie Murray from the UK said on Tuesday.
Others criticized the Australian government for confusing the process and abusing the world’s top-ranked player.
Tennys Sandgren, the American professional who is also against a vaccination mandate, stated on Twitter that “Australia does not deserve to host a Grand Slam.”
Djokovic, who is tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most Grand Slam titles for men’s singles by 20, would have been the favorite to win his 21st in Melbourne, where he has won nine times. Melbourne has a small but energetic community of Serbian foreigners who take part in all of Djokovic’s matches at Rod Laver Arena and rarely give him enthusiastic support away from his homeland, despite his stature as arguably the greatest player ever.
Livia Albeck-Ripka and Damien Cave contributed with reporting.