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Novak Djokovic wins case against Australia over canceled visa, clearing path for him to play in Melbourne

Novak Djokovic's supporters clashed with police on the streets of Melbourne on Jan. 10, after they swarmed a car believed to be carrying the tennis player. (Video: Michael Miller/The Washington Post)
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic will be allowed to remain in Australia, clearing the way for him to compete in the Australian Open after a judge Monday overturned a decision to cancel the tennis star’s visa.

The decision, by Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly, ended a five-day standoff between the world’s top-ranked men’s player and Australian officials that had become an international spectacle. It gives the Serbian star a shot at breaking the record for men’s Grand Slam singles titles at the Melbourne tournament.

As the judge ordered Djokovic released from a quarantine hotel for undocumented immigrants, however, attorneys representing the Australian government warned that the immigration minister was considering whether to re-cancel Djokovic’s visa, threatening a new showdown. Soon, crowds gathered in downtown Melbourne, chanting, “Novak, Novak!” and “Free Nole!” as dusk fell.

The judge’s ruling initially unleashed a wave of celebration among Djokovic’s supporters, scores of whom gathered in Melbourne’s Federation Square to dance and sing.

But as false rumors began to circulate that Djokovic had been detained again — something the government threatened to do Monday — the celebration turned to anger.

Several hundred Djokovic supporters, shouting “Free Novak,” marched to the skyscraper where the tennis star had been brought earlier in the day to watch the online proceedings with his attorneys.

When a car with tinted windows emerged from the parking garage, Djokovic supporters surrounded it and began to boo, curse and block the road. When the protesters got too close to the police officers ringing the car, the police began deploying pepper spray.

Djokovic supporters reacted angrily, screaming obscenities. At least one unmasked man spit on officers, while several threw plastic water bottles, hitting at least two officers, one in the head. An officer who was pepper-sprayed in the chaos fell to the sidewalk as a colleague helped him wash out his eyes. A Djokovic supporter and his daughter were also pepper-sprayed, with the family washing their eyes out with milk.

“It’s crazy,” said the girl’s mother. “There were kids as young as 5.”

Police officers said they did not know whether Djokovic was in the car.

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

Djokovic’s attorneys had presented a forceful case Monday against Australia’s treatment of the tennis star, at times appearing to draw agreement from the judge. But the government argued it had the right to turn away anyone who poses a potential health risk.

Djokovic, 34, had been held in Melbourne’s Park Hotel since Thursday after his visa was canceled upon his arrival in the country Wednesday night, when authorities rejected his request for an exemption from Australia’s requirement that visitors be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Djokovic appealed the decision, setting up Monday’s legal contest.

“I’m pleased and grateful that the Judge overturned my visa cancellation,” Djokovic wrote on Twitter, adding that he wanted to remain in the country and play in the Australian Open.

“I remain focused on that,” he wrote. “I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans.”

The high-profile case captured headlines by pitting the steely Serb against Australia’s strict pandemic protocols. Djokovic’s family denounced his treatment, and Serbian and Australian officials traded criticism. The case transformed the unvaccinated sports star — a skeptic of coronavirus vaccines — into a lightning rod for the global vaccination debate.

In a news conference in Serbia, Djokovic’s parents thanked supporters and described their son’s ordeal but abruptly stopped taking questions when asked about his recent covid infection.

“There was a time when he didn’t have a telephone on him and we didn’t know what was happening,” said his mother, Dijana. “We didn’t know if he was okay, if he was sick. … As a mother, that was [difficult].”

His father, Srdan, said Djokovic had been pressured to sign papers withdrawing his visa but refused.

“They took away all his rights, all the ones that belong to him as a human being,” he said, adding that his son “never fell to his knees.”

“He has so much mental strength that this did not disturb him at all,” he said. “He can’t wait to get back on court.”

His father added his conviction that Djokovic would win the Australian Open as well as “10 more Grand Slams.”

The family ended the news conference when they were asked about reports that Djokovic had attended large, public, indoor events in the days after learning he had covid in mid-December.

In the hearing, Djokovic’s attorney, Nick Wood, argued that the tennis player had provided the Australian government with all required documentation and then received a reply from the Department of Home Affairs, saying his responses indicated he met the requirements of quarantine-free travel.

“What is someone in Mr. Djokovic’s position supposed to understand?” Wood asked. “Any reasonable person would understand, and he did understand, that he had ticked absolutely every box.”

Read the documents in Djokovic's case against Australia

Kelly appeared to agree, noting that there had been a “back and forth” of information from various levels of government and that Djokovic’s medical exemption had been approved by two independent panels of specialists.

“The point that I’m somewhat agitated about is, what more could this man have done,” he said.

The judge said he was perturbed by the treatment Djokovic received at the airport, where he said Australian Border Force officials “reneged” on an agreement to let the tennis player speak to his attorneys and tournament organizers.

“The transcript is replete with statements by Mr. Djokovic saying, ‘If you will let me talk to people, though you’ve taken my phone from me, I will try and get you what you want,’ ” Kelly said, not hiding his exasperation with the government’s handling of the case.

The government then briefly outlined its position. Lawyer Christopher Tran argued that Djokovic’s appeal — including the accusation that the tennis player was pressured to speak without his attorneys or tennis officials — was more of a challenge of the process than the outcome, which ultimately came down to the Australian government’s ability under the law to prohibit someone from entering the country to protect the health of the nation.

“That provision does not present a high bar,” he said.

But Kelly said he had a “reservation” about that argument, suggesting that the treatment of the tennis player should be taken into account.

Novak Djokovic’s legal team argued he was given a medical exemption to enter Australia unvaccinated because he contracted the illness in December 2021. (Video: Reuters)

When proceedings resumed after a lengthy break, Kelly delivered a flurry of commands. He overturned the government’s decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa, ordered his immediate release and instructed the government to return the tennis player’s passport and other belongings. He also ordered the government to pay Djokovic’s costs.

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

The government had conceded that its broken promise to allow Djokovic to talk to his lawyers and tennis officials at the airport was “unreasonable,” Kelly said.

When Tran told the court that the minister for immigration would consider using his “personal power” to again cancel Djokovic’s visa, Kelly showed a flash of anger.

“It would be fair to say I could have been something approaching incandescent if I discovered that for the first time in the later hours of this evening or the early hours of tomorrow,” he said, later warning that a ministerial cancellation of Djokovic’s visa would bar the athlete from the country for three years.

The saga began last week when Djokovic posted on Instagram that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission.”

The post sparked outrage in Australia, which has recently seen a sharp spike in coronavirus infections despite high vaccination rates. When Djokovic arrived at Melbourne’s airport, he was detained for eight hours overnight before being transferred to the Park Hotel, where asylum seekers are detained, until his appeal could be decided.

In court documents filed ahead of Monday’s hearing, Djokovic’s attorneys argued his visa was not subject to any vaccination conditions and was improperly canceled. They also said the tennis star believed he had obtained the requisite medical exemption and that Australian immigration officials had signed off on quarantine-free entry.

But federal officials insisted the exemption — based on Djokovic’s contracting the virus in December, according to court filings — applied only to the tournament and was not sufficient to enter the country.

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

On Sunday, the head of Tennis Australia blamed the situation on “contradictory information” received during months of communication with the federal government.

Djokovic is not the only player caught up in the debacle. After detaining the Serb, the Australian Border Force also investigated whether others had entered the country using the same type of medical exemption. Officials then canceled the visas of a foreign official and Czech doubles player Renata Voracova, both of whom have since left.

Within 90 minutes of the decision on Monday, scores of Djokovic’s supporters had gathered at Federation Square. As a drummer pounded on a marching band drum, two teenage girls draped in Serbian flags volleyed a tennis ball back and forth. It was game on for Djokovic and party on for his supporters.

“It’s a special moment,” said Andrea Jovanovic, 34, as her daughter held a Serbian flag up to the evening sun.

Nearby, a woman in her 70s dressed in traditional Balkan clothing stood beneath a parasol that said, “Not Anti-Vax, Pro Liberty.” Australian officials had made a mess of the situation, said the woman, who would give her name only as Zorica.

“They mixed the omelet, now they don’t know how to swallow it,” she said, using a sanitized version of a Serbian expression. Zorica said she had spent the past five days demonstrating in support of Djokovic, whose nickname the growing crowd now chanted: “Nole, Nole!”

“He was the sacrificial lamb,” she said.