With a medical exemption to mandatory coronavirus vaccination in hand, Novak Djokovic landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport shortly before midnight Wednesday, eager to launch preparations for the Australian Open and his pursuit of a record 21st major title.
He was escorted to a windowless immigration room as authorities reviewed potential irregularities with his visa and questions about the legitimacy of the medical exemption granted by state officials in Victoria that enabled him to enter the tournament.
Border authorities then canceled his visa.
And an unprecedented drama unfolded overnight, with his father, Srdjan, providing updates of his son’s plight to Serbian media and Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, demanding on his Instagram account that “the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately.”
By midmorning Thursday, Djokovic, 34, whose record nine Australian Open championships have made him something akin to royalty at Melbourne Park’s Rod Laver Arena, was transferred to a government-approved hotel pending a flight out of the country.
Meanwhile, he engaged lawyers to overturn the decision, and they won a last-minute bid Thursday to prevent his deportation, with a judge approving a temporary injunction that allows Djokovic to stay in Australia until at least Monday, when a further hearing will take place.
The run-up to what may well have been an on-court coronation Jan. 30, with Djokovic heavily favored to win a 10th Australian Open that would give him 21 major titles, breaking his tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most majors ever in men’s tennis, turned instead into an international incident that threw the tournament’s field into question less than two weeks before play opens Jan. 17.
The Australian Border Force said in a statement that “Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia. … Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia.”
Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison was equally resolute, citing the imperative of enforcing the country’s strict coronavirus protocols without favor.
“Mr Djokovic’s visa has been cancelled,” Morrison said in a tweet. “Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant.”
Australian Open officials had no immediate comment.
According to a person close to the tournament with direct knowledge of the sequence of events, Djokovic followed every step of the country’s visa process properly. Moreover, the person said, Djokovic’s medical exemption was granted with all identifying information redacted, ruling out the possibility of favoritism.
But in the view of the person close to the Open, Australian authorities “did an about-face” on Djokovic’s status after his disclosure of being granted a medical exemption to coronavirus vaccination requirements sparked outrage in Melbourne and throughout the country from citizens who have been subjected to exceedingly strict protocols for nearly two years.
“He did everything correctly,” the person said. “But the goal posts have been changed — for him.”
Djokovic’s announcement Tuesday that he had been granted an exemption to play in Australia had drawn a swift rebuke from the country’s prime minister. Morrison said earlier Wednesday that Djokovic would have to prove upon arrival why he deserves an exemption from vaccination or he will be “on the next plane home.”
“We await his presentation and what evidence he provides us to support that,” Morrison said during a news conference that followed a meeting of state leaders to discuss the record levels of coronavirus infections in the country. “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. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever.”
Tennis Australia and Victoria officials said Djokovic had been one of a “handful” of the people granted medical exemptions and had received no special treatment, with applications anonymous and reviewed by two independent panels. Without an exemption, all Australian Open participants, including staff and fans attending the event, are required to show proof of vaccination.
The federal government, however, is responsible for international borders and visas and did not participate in the process for considering exemptions. Morrison added that some exemptions had been granted — provided adequate reasons were shown. “So the circumstances are not unique. The issue is whether he has sufficient evidence to support that he would qualify for that exception,” he said.
Djokovic has not made known his reasons for seeking an exemption from getting vaccinated. Craig Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia, told reporters that reasons could include past reactions to vaccines, recent surgery, myocarditis or evidence of a coronavirus infection in the previous six months.
Djokovic and his team have responded to the past two years of pandemic protocols with a mixture of nonchalance and hostility. Several months into the pandemic, the star created an exhibition in Serbia and Croatia known as the Adria Tour. But the event enacted few precautions, and Djokovic, his wife, and several other figures involved in the exhibition later tested positive for the coronavirus.
His announcement Tuesday that he had received an exemption to play made no mention of whether his opinion on the protocols had changed.
“Lots of people in the Victorian community will find this to be a disappointing outcome,” Jaala Pulford, Victoria’s acting sports minister, said in a news conference Wednesday before the reversal, “but the process is the process; nobody has had special treatment. The process is incredibly robust.”
Tiley placed the onus on Djokovic to reveal the reason for his exemption.
“It’ll certainly be helpful if Novak was to explain the conditions in which he’s sought an exemption and granted an exemption, but ultimately it’s up to him,” Tiley said, adding, “We’ve been through a very tough period over the past two years, and we would appreciate some answers to that.”
Criticism of the exemption, with whispers of special treatment for the top player in Australia’s highest-profile international sports event, was swift, with skepticism giving way to indignant outrage.
“We have all been through lockdowns, restrictions, home schooling and made countless changes to our lives, so don’t tell me that Djokovic is oblivious to what Australians have been through,” former player Sam Groth, who is in isolation after a positive test, wrote in a News Corp. column.
Christine Wharton, a Melbourne resident, told Reuters: “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.”
Tiley pointed out that exemptions were considered in a two-stage process set by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization. “We completely understand and empathize with ... people being upset about the fact that Novak has come in because of his statements over the past couple of years around vaccination,” Tiley told reporters.
“However, it is ultimately up to him to discuss with the public his condition, if he chooses to do that, and the reasons why he received an exemption.”