Novak Djokovic will bid to avoid deportation from Australia on Saturday as the world number one’s hopes of winning a record 21st Grand Slam title in Melbourne teetered on the edge following a new cancellation of his visa over Covid-19 protocols.
As time slips away before the Australian Open starts Monday, the nine-time title holder was told in an emergency hearing that he would be placed in immigration detention on Saturday morning.
He is expected to present himself to government offices at 8:00 am (2100 GMT Friday) ahead of being detained.
The Serbian tennis star’s bid to avoid deportation will then be heard by Australia’s Federal Court at 10:15 am.
The government has agreed not to deport the 34-year-old Djokovic until the hearing is over, barrister Stephen Lloyd told an emergency late-night federal court session.
He would be allowed out of detention to follow the online court hearing at his solicitors’ offices, but only under the supervision of Australian Border Force officers, the barrister said.
The saga over Djokovic’s bid for glory at Melbourne Park began upon his arrival early this month in Australia, with what he said was an exemption permission to enter the country and play in the first Grand Slam event of 2022.
Border agents rejected his exemption based on a positive PCR test result on December 16, revoked his visa and placed him in a notorious Melbourne detention centre where he spent four nights.
Djokovic’s top-flight legal team managed to overturn the decision in court because border officials at the airport had failed to give him the agreed time to respond.
But Australia’s conservative government invoked extraordinary executive powers to rip up his visa again, this time on public interest grounds.
The player’s barrister Nick Wood said the government had argued that Djokovic’s presence would stir anti-vaccine sentiment in Australia, which is fighting a surge of infections by the Omicron variant.
Djokovic, an avowed Covid-19 vaccine sceptic, is the tournament’s top seed and had been practising just hours before Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s decision was announced.
It is unclear if Djokovic will choose to stay and fight the case if he believes he is unable to compete in the Australian Open.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Friday accused Australia of “mistreating” Djokovic.
“If you wanted to ban Novak Djokovic from winning the 10th trophy in Melbourne why didn’t you return him immediately, why didn’t you tell him ‘it is impossible to obtain a visa’?” Vucic said on Instagram.
“Novak, we stand by you!”
– ‘In the public interest’ –
In a statement, Hawke said the government was “firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic”, citing “health and good order grounds” for the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa once again.
Hawke said “it was in the public interest to do so”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison backed the decision, saying: “Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected.”
The visa cancellation effectively means Djokovic would be barred from obtaining a new Australian visa for three years, except under exceptional circumstances, ruling him out of one of the four Grand Slam tournaments during that time.
He is currently tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 Grand Slam titles each.
Djokovic’s vaccine waiver provoked outrage among many Australians who have endured nearly two years of some of the toughest coronavirus restrictions in the world.
The Australian government insists a recent infection does not qualify as a vaccine exemption for foreign nationals trying to enter the country.
– ‘They’re all fools’ –
Former world number one Andy Murray, who will play at the Open, said Friday he hoped Djokovic’s status would be cleared up.
“It just seems like it’s dragged on for quite a long time now and (it’s) not great for the tennis, not great for the Australian Open, not great for Novak,” Murray said.
Other players, including world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, have criticised Djokovic.
“For sure he has been playing by his own rules,” Tsitsipas told Indian broadcaster WION on Thursday.
On the day of his claimed positive test in Serbia, Djokovic attended a ceremony to honour him with stamps bearing his image. The following day he attended a youth tennis event. He appeared at both apparently without a mask.
Djokovic said on Instagram that he only received the PCR test result after going to the children’s tennis event on December 17.
But he admitted he went ahead with an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe on December 18, calling it an “error of judgement”.
– ‘Incorrect box’ –
The tennis star also admitted to a mistake on his Australian travel declaration, in which a box was ticked indicating that he had not, or would not, travel in the 14 days before flying to Melbourne.
In fact, social media posts show he flew from Serbia to Spain during that period.
Djokovic blamed his support team for this, saying: “My agent sincerely apologises for the administrative mistake in ticking the incorrect box.”
As Covid-related hospitalisations rise in Melbourne, the Victorian state government said Thursday it would cap capacity at the Australian Open at 50 per cent.