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‘Novak Djokovic is not a criminal’: Serbia and Australia trade volleys as tennis star remains held in hotel

Supporters of tennis star Novak Djokovic rallied outside the hotel where he was being detained on Jan. 7. A priest there led prayers marking Orthodox Christmas. (Video: Reuters)

SYDNEY — Australian and Serbian officials traded volleys of criticism over the strange immigration saga of Novak Djokovic as an investigation into the tennis star’s thwarted trip Down Under threatened to engulf other top players.

Australia on Friday rejected claims from Djokovic’s family that the player was being held prisoner ahead of a court hearing Monday that will determine whether he is allowed to remain in the country and play in the Australian Open. The world No. 1 had his visa canceled on arrival in Melbourne on Wednesday after authorities rejected his request for an exemption from Australia’s requirement that visitors be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Rather than leave the country, he lodged an appeal and is being held at a hotel for undocumented immigrants until the hearing can take place.

There were also reports in local media on Friday that another tennis player, 38-year-old Czech Renata Voracova, was also detained and sent to the same quarantine hotel after entering the tournament on a similar vaccine exemption. Reuters later reported that the Czech Foreign Ministry confirmed her detention.

Novak Djokovic's mother, Dijana Djokovic, said at a news conference with other members of his family on Jan. 6, that her son was being kept as a “prisoner.” (Video: Reuters)

Novak Djokovic thought he’d aced Australian immigration. It now looks like a fault.

“Mr. Djokovic is not being held captive in Australia,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “He is free to leave at any time that he chooses to do so, and Border Force will actually facilitate that.”

Her comments came as Serbian officials escalated complaints over Djokovic’s treatment, claiming that the athlete had been “lured” to Australia only to be the target of a “witch hunt” and demanding that he be moved to better accommodations.

“Novak Djokovic is not a criminal, terrorist nor illegal immigrant, but he has been treated as such by the Australian authorities, which understandably triggers the indignation of his supporters and Serbian citizens,” Serbia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry’s state secretary, Nemanja Starovic, spoke to the Australian ambassador to demand that Djokovic be transferred to “adequate accommodation for a sportsman of his caliber” while awaiting the court decision, according to the statement.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic draws renewed attention to Australia’s ‘detention hotels’

Australian officials have refused to disclose Djokovic’s whereabouts, but his supporters have gathered outside Melbourne’s Park Hotel, where the tennis star is reportedly housed along with a few dozen asylum seekers, some of whom have complained of the conditions.

The site has quickly become a magnet for an eclectic mix of protesters, including fellow Serbs, tennis fans, anti-vaccine activists and immigration advocates hoping to use the sudden spotlight to focus attention on the asylum seekers. Not all were sympathetic toward the tennis champ. “Refugees are welcome. Djokovic is not,” read one banner.

Two people were arrested late Thursday after climbing on an awning. Djokovic’s Serbian supporters, meanwhile, stayed until the early hours of Friday, Orthodox Christmas Day, singing and chanting his name.

Starovic also told his Australian counterpart that Serbians felt Djokovic has become “a victim of a political game and was lured to travel to Australia only to then be humiliated,” according to the statement.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic claimed that Djokovic was the victim of a “political witch hunt.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has denied that Djokovic was singled out, saying the tennis player arrived in Australia without a medical exemption required for unvaccinated visitors.

“Rules are rules,” he told reporters on Thursday. “There are no special cases.”

The self-belief that made Novak Djokovic a champion has put him in limbo in Australia

The deepening diplomatic dispute echoes the public falling-out between Australia and France last year over a canceled $67 billion submarine deal and has been pounced upon by Morrison’s opponents ahead of an election this year.

As tensions between Serbia and Australia escalated, the investigation continued into Djokovic’s immigration debacle.

The tennis player, who is seeking to break the record for Grand Slam titles, posted on Instagram earlier this week that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission.”

It now appears, however, that he had a medical exemption to participate in the tournament, not to enter the country.

Australian health officials sent tournament organizers two letters in November explaining that a recent coronavirus infection — believed to be the basis for Djokovic’s exemption request — was not sufficient to enter Australia, according to local media reports.

On Friday, officials in the state of Victoria, where the tournament is held, said they had not seen the letters.

Tennis Australia, which organizes the tournament, did not respond to requests for comment. In an op-ed, former Australian Open director and tennis star Paul McNamee called the incident “a bureaucratic stuff-up.”

Novak Djokovic is desperate to be taken seriously. Now he’s becoming a punchline.

But the investigation appears to be expanding, with Andrews telling the Nine Network that the Australian Border Force is looking into whether others entered the country for the tournament using insufficient medical exemptions.

Djokovic’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment, and a receptionist at the law office said they could not discuss the case.

The tennis player has also been silent so far. But his wife, Jelena, posted a photo of the couple on Instagram along with a message thanking people for their support.

“It’s Christmas today for us,” she wrote. “. . . I am taking a deep breath to calm down and find gratitude (and understanding) in this moment for all that is happening. The only law that we should all respect across every single border is Love and respect for another human being.”

Djokovic’s fellow tennis pros have mostly stayed mum about the standoff, in contrast to the disappearance of Chinese player Peng Shuai two months ago, which elicited expressions of concern from a host of athletes, including Djokovic.

Among the few to voice support for Djokovic is American Tennys Sandgren, who pulled out of the Australian Open over its vaccination requirement and did not seek an exemption.

“Australia doesn’t deserve to host a grand slam,” he tweeted.

Australian player Nick Kyrgios, who has sparred with Djokovic before, said he believed in getting vaccinated but questioned his country’s “really bad” treatment of the Serb. “Like these memes, headlines, this is one of our great champions but at the end of the day, he is human. Do better,” he wrote on Twitter.

Rafael Nadal, who is tied with Djokovic and Roger Federer with 20 Grand Slams, had limited sympathy for his rival, who he said could have avoided the trouble by simply getting vaccinated.

“In some way, I feel sorry for him, but he knew the conditions months ago,” Nadal said on Thursday. “He’s free to take his own position, but then there are consequences.”

Read more:

Novak Djokovic thought he’d aced Australian immigration. It now looks like a fault.

The self-belief that made Novak Djokovic a champion has put him in limbo in Australia

‘Rules are rules’: Australia cancels Novak Djokovic’s visa amid vaccine exemption uproar