MELBOURNE, Australia — Tennis star Novak Djokovic left Australia on Sunday after losing his legal challenge to remain and compete in the Australian Open despite not being vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Although it would have been possible for Djokovic to appeal the ruling to Australia’s High Court, the timing of Sunday’s decision — roughly 24 hours before Djokovic was due to take to the tennis court — made another challenge unfeasible.
Djokovic, known for his stamina on the tennis court, released a statement shortly after the ruling saying his legal battle was over.
The world’s top-ranked men’s player said he was “extremely disappointed” but respected the decision and would “cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country.”
“I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love,” Djokovic said.
The grounds on which the justices upheld the minister’s decision were not immediately clear. James Allsop, chief justice for the Federal Court of Australia, said an explanation would not be released until Monday at the earliest.
But given the global interest in the case, Allsop said, he felt compelled to point out that it was “no part of the function of the court to decide upon the merits or wisdom” of the immigration minister’s decision. Instead, the case looked only at whether the minister’s decision was “irrational or legally unreasonable.”
Alex Hawke, the immigration minister, said he welcomed the decision.
“Australia’s strong border protection policies have kept us safe during the pandemic, resulting in one of the lowest death rates, strongest economic recoveries, and highest vaccination rates in the world,” he said in a statement.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Djokovic could return to his homeland with his head held high, Serbian news agencies reported. Vucic said the Australian government had humiliated itself by harassing Djokovic.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised the decision. “Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic,” he said in a statement, “and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected.”
Some in the tennis world have said they were tired of the saga overshadowing the tournament, but several players took to social media to support Djokovic.
“I know too little to judge the situation,” tweeted French player Alizé Cornet, who is competing in the Australian Open. “What I know is that Novak is always the first one to stand for the players. But none of us stood for him. Be strong @DjokerNole.”
Australian player Nick Kyrgios, who has sparred with Djokovic in the past but criticized his country’s handling of the situation, simply tweeted a face-palm emoji.
“The big loser of this mess is the tournament,” tweeted Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach. “The only good news is that we will hopefully start talking about tennis.”
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer who was held in an Australian-run offshore detention center for four years while seeking asylum, contrasted Djokovic’s fate to that of the asylum seekers with whom the tennis star shared hotel detention.
“While Djokovic has a safe, comfortable life to return to, refugees who flee their homes only to be deported are doubly persecuted,” Boochani tweeted. “They cannot return safely. This is what it means to be a refugee.”
More than 85,000 tuned in online to watch the live-streamed court battle Sunday morning, eager to see the latest twist in a two-week saga that threatened to upend the Grand Slam event.
Djokovic was not visible during the remotely conducted proceedings. But minutes before they began, he was seen leaving the hotel where he had been detained and heading to his lawyers’ offices for the hearing.
Adding to the drama was Hawke’s decision to put the unvaccinated player’s personal beliefs on trial, arguing that his past anti-vaccine statements, behavior and huge platform as one of the world’s biggest sports stars meant his continued presence in the country could incite anti-vaccine sentiment and “civil unrest.”
That claim immediately came under criticism from Djokovic’s attorneys on Sunday, who said the minister had unreasonably failed to consider what deporting the tennis star would do for civil unrest.
“It was just quite obvious that that in itself might be apt to generate anti-vax sentiment,” Nick Wood said.
Wood also argued that the government had relied on old and selectively used quotes from Djokovic to describe his position on vaccines. Djokovic had been playing tennis around the world — including in Australia — for the past year of the pandemic without inciting unrest, he said. And the only evidence of a connection between Djokovic and anti-vaccine protests was the reaction to the government’s own decision to deport him.
Stephen Lloyd, arguing for the immigration minister, said that Djokovic had done nothing to retract or change his stance, including in an Instagram statement last week, and that the fact he remained unvaccinated spoke volumes.
Lloyd also said the minister had considered the possibility of anti-vaccine advocates reacting to Djokovic’s deportation.
Two of the three justices appeared concerned with whether the minister had fully weighed the potential outcome.
“One could see a situation where it was plain to anyone with common sense that canceling the visa would cause overwhelming public discord and risks of transmission through very large public gatherings,” Allsop said.
After an hour break, Allsop said “one view” of the situation was that the minister did not “finely balance the weighing” of what would happen if he deported Djokovic compared with allowing him to stay and compete.
“The answer to that may be that he didn’t have to,” the chief justice said.
The unusual and expedited weekend hearing came a day after Djokovic was detained for a second time by Australian authorities and placed back in the hotel he had triumphantly left just five days earlier.
As Djokovic’s opponents spent Saturday morning preparing for their first matches, he spent it under guard, working with his attorneys for Sunday’s decisive showdown.
And as journalists scrambled around Melbourne in pursuit of a glimpse of Djokovic, the tennis world reacted with a mix of shock, anger, shrugs and schadenfreude to news of his detention.
“It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players [in] history,” Rafael Nadal, who, like Djokovic, is hoping to make history by winning his 21st Grand Slam in Melbourne, said at a news conference. “But there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event.”
“Either send him out early, or let him play,” Kyrgios told the Age, a Melbourne newspaper. “Now I feel it’s getting a bit embarrassing. I feel it’s not fair on him now. Preparing for a grand slam is hard enough.”
The saga began almost two weeks ago, when Djokovic — who has expressed opposition to coronavirus vaccines — posted on Instagram that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission.”
The news didn’t go down well in Australia, a highly vaccinated country that is in the midst of a severe spike in coronavirus infections. When he arrived at the Melbourne airport on Jan. 5, Australian Border Force officers decided his medical exemption was valid to play in the tournament but not to enter the country. They detained him for eight hours, canceled his visa and then put him in the Park Hotel, where asylum seekers have complained about conditions.
Just as it appeared that Djokovic would be deported, a federal judge ruled that Border Force officials had mistreated Djokovic and ordered him released, setting off jubilant celebrations from the hundreds of supporters — Serbs, tennis fans and anti-vaccine advocates — who had gathered outside his hotel for four days.
But the government threatened to again cancel his visa, and Hawke followed through on Friday evening, reigniting the legal battle and setting off a flurry of rushed court hearings.
In a document outlining his reasons for canceling Djokovic’s visa, Hawke dropped the argument about the validity of the tennis player’s medical exemption, saying he didn’t even read the material Djokovic submitted regarding his recent coronavirus infection — the grounds for his exemption — because “I’m not medically trained.”
The minister also conceded for the sake of the hearing that Djokovic’s recent infection meant he posed a “negligible” risk of infecting others.
Instead, Hawke noted that Djokovic is “a high profile unvaccinated individual, who has indicated publicly that he is opposed to becoming vaccinated against covid-19.”
“I consider that Mr. Djokovic’s presence in Australia may pose a health risk to the Australian community, in that his presence in Australia may foster anti-vaccination sentiment” that would lead to more people getting the coronavirus and increased pressure on the hospital system, Hawke argued.
Hawke also pointed to Djokovic’s decision to hold an interview and photo shoot with a French newspaper in Serbia after testing positive last month. Djokovic has apologized for his conduct.
“Given Mr. Djokovic’s high profile status and position as a role model in the sporting or broader community, his ongoing presence in Australia may foster similar disregard for the precautionary requirements following receipt of a positive covid-19 test,” he wrote.
After more than four hours of arguments, there was little hint as to which way the justices were leaning. Allsop adjourned the hearing around 2:40 p.m., saying he hoped to deliver a decision by Sunday evening.
In the end, it didn’t take that long.
At 5:45 p.m., Allsop delivered the court’s ruling, dashing Djokovic’s hopes.
For about an hour and a half, the Australian Open schedule continued to list Djokovic as playing Monday. Then the name that has overshadowed the competition suddenly disappeared.
In its place: Italian Salvatore Caruso, who lost in the qualifying round.
His rank? No. 150.
Robyn Dixon in Belgrade contributed to this report.