Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player, traveled all day Wednesday from Dubai to Australia, a journey that was supposed to begin his defense of the Australian Open singles championship.
On Thursday, he received a message that he needed to leave the country. This followed a 10-hour standoff between government officials at Melbourne’s airport. Djokovic was then held in a hotel overnight over his validity of his visa, as well as questions about the evidence supporting an exemption from the coronavirus vaccination. Djokovic is a 20-time Grand Slam champion and one the biggest sports stars. The exemption was supposed allow him to compete in the Australian Open despite not having been vaccinated.
It was not immediately clear whether Djokovic would appeal the ruling in Australia’s courts. A spokesperson for the tennis star did no immediate respond to requests for comment.
Djokovic experienced a surprising turn in his life, as he went from being granted special, last-minute permission for the Open to boarding an intercontinental plane to being told by the prime Minister of Australia that he was not welcomed in the country.
At one point President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia even got involved, speaking with Djokovic and criticizing the Australian government for its treatment of his country’s biggest sports star.
The pandemic caused havoc on sports in the last two years. Tokyo Summer Olympics was delayed for a year. Major events were held in empty stadiums. After testing positive for the virus, star players were sent into isolation shortly before their competitions.
Djokovic was one of the most controversial figures in tennis. This was no match for any of them. It turned on a confrontation between a sports superstar and the most powerful leader in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, where government officials, citizens, the media and even some fellow players criticized the exemption, seemingly prompting the sudden shift.
The decision promises to become another flashpoint in the debate about vaccines and how the pandemic should be managed now, especially in Australia, where egalitarianism is considered a sacred principle — and where “the tennis,” as the Open is called, is also beloved by what often seems like an entire nation of sports fanatics.
In a statement Thursday, the Australian Border Force pledged to “continue to ensure that those who arrive at our border comply with our laws and entry requirements. The ABF can confirm that Mr. Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently canceled.”
Djokovic said it was the latest and most difficult controversy in a career full of them.
Djokovic has not been afraid to express his unconventional views of medicine and science. He once supported the idea of prayer and belief purifying toxic water. He has repeatedly stated his opposition against vaccine mandates, saying that vaccination is a private decision that should be made. He had not yet revealed whether he was vaccinated until this week.
Tuesday will be his birthday announcedHe tweeted that he had been granted a medical waiver from the requirement that all persons entering Australia be vaccinated. He boarded the plane to fly to Australia from Dubai later.
Craig Tiley, chief executive of Tennis Australia, stated that players who sought an exemption had to meet with two panels made up of medical experts. The process involved the redaction of personal data to protect privacy.
“Fair and independent protocols were established for assessing medical exemption applications that will enable us to ensure Australian Open 2022 is safe and enjoyable for everyone,” Tiley said. “Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was given due consideration.”
Tiley said Wednesday in a television interview that 26 players had applied for an exemption and “a handful” had been granted. Tiley stated that 99 percent of the more then 3,000 people who came to Australia for the tournament had been vaccinated. The few who were granted exemption had either a medical condition or had Covid-19 within the last six months.
Djokovic landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Djokovic was now the focal point of a furore over how he was allowed to enter Australia, which has seen a remarkable rise in coronavirus cases.
Although the country has won one of the most important battles against Covid-19 it has also paid a heavy price. The strict lockdowns have been in place for many months. Until recently, international borders were almost completely closed. Travelers arriving from abroad had to be subject to a two-week quarantine. Even domestic travel between states was banned for long periods. The country has seen approximately 2,200 deaths. However, since opening its borders last year, it now handles more than 30,000 cases per day.
As Djokovic flew to Melbourne, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, invoked the government’s authority to deny entry to Djokovic.
“Any individual seeking to enter Australia must comply with our border requirements,” Morrison said.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Information
The global surge. The coronavirus is spreading faster than ever at the start of 2022, but the last days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant produces less severe illness than earlier waves. Therefore, governments are focusing more attention on expanding vaccinations than limiting spread.
“We await his presentation and what evidence he provides us to support that,” Morrison added. “If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home. Novak Djokovic should not be subject to any special rules. None whatsoever.”
Also Wednesday, Jaala Pulford, the acting sports minister for the state of Victoria, which contains Melbourne, site of the Open, said the state government would not support Djokovic’s application for a visa. Pulford wrote on Twitter that “visa approvals are a matter for the federal government.”
Her statement followed the comments of Australia’s minister for home affairs, Karen Andrews, who had released a statement that noted the government had the authority to block Djokovic from entering the country. In a statement headlined “Australia’s Border Rules Apply to Everyone,” Andrews said that “while the Victorian Government and Tennis Australia may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth Government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border.”
“No individual competing at the Australian Open will be afforded any special treatment,” Andrews said.
Two panels of experts decided to grant Djokovic medical exemption. This was met with great enthusiasm skepticism and resignationSome of his fellow players, outrage from Australians
“I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” Jamie Murray of Britain said on Tuesday.
Others criticized the Australian government for bungling the process and mistreating the world’s top-ranked player.
Tennys Sandgren, the American professional player who is also against a vaccination mandate, stated on Twitter that “Australia doesn’t deserve to host a Grand Slam.”
Djokovic, who is tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most Grand Slam men’s singles titles with 20, would have been a favorite to win his 21st in Melbourne, where he has prevailed nine times. Melbourne has a small but energetic community of Serbian expatriates, who attend all of Djokovic’s matches at Rod Laver Arena, the Open’s main court, and provide him with rare enthusiastic support away from his homeland, despite his stature as arguably the greatest player ever.
While the men’s and women’s professional tours do not require a vaccination, tennis officials are at the mercy of the local, state and national governments in power where tournaments are held. Djokovic may be faced with similar circumstances at other competitions, if countries require a vaccination for entry or a local government requires it for work.
The U.S. Open and Wimbledon, which are held in late spring and early summer, have yet not announced whether a vaccine is required.
Andrew Das, Isabella Kwai, Livia Albeck-RipkaAnd Damien CaveContributed reporting
Source: NY Times