Australia Considers Another Step to Deport Djokovic
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MELBOURNE (Reuters) – World tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic was back in practice hours after winning a court challenge to remain in Australia on Monday, thanking the judge who released him from immigration detention and saying he remained focused on his bid for a record 21st Grand Slam win in Melbourne.
The fight over his medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination may not be over, however, as the Australian government said it was still considering another move to deport him.
“I am pleased and grateful that the judge overturned my visa cancellation,” Mr. Djokovic wrote on Twitter, where he posted a photograph of himself on court at the Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park. “Despite all that has happened I want to stay and try to compete at the Australian Open.”
Earlier, Judge Anthony Kelly had ruled the federal government’s decision last week to revoke the Serbian tennis star’s visa was “unreasonable” and ordered his release.
“Novak is free and just a moment ago he went to the tennis court to practice,” Mr. Djokovic’s younger brother, Djordje, told a family news conference in Belgrade. “He’s out there to set another record.”
Mr. Djokovic, who arrived in Australia last week to defend his Australian Open title, had spent the day at his lawyers’ chambers.
There were chaotic scenes on Monday evening as supporters who had gathered outside the lawyers’ office chanting “Free Novak!” surged around a black car with tinted windows leaving the building, while police at one stage used pepper spray as they tried to clear a path.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said he was considering using his broad discretionary powers he is given by Australia’s Migration Act to again revoke Mr. Djokovic’s visa. Such a move could include a three-year ban on re-entering Australia.
“The minister is currently considering the matter and the process remains ongoing,” the spokesman said.
The controversy has been closely followed around the world, creating diplomatic tensions between Belgrade and Canberra and sparking heated debate over national vaccination rules.
The Australian Open begins on January 17. Mr. Djokovic has won the tournament, one of tennis’s four Grand Slams, for the last three years and nine times overall.
Spanish rival Rafa Nadal called the drama surrounding the build-up to the tournament a “circus.”
“Whether or not I agree with Djokovic on some things, justice has spoken and has said that he has the right to participate in the Australian Open and I think it is the fairest decision,” Mr. Nadal told Spanish radio Onda Cero.
The authorities’ efforts to let the media and public follow events in court at times descended into farce, with pranksters hijacking internet links to stream loud music and porn.
Judge Kelly said he had quashed the decision to block Mr. Djokovic’s entry to Australia because the player was not given enough time to speak to tennis organizers and lawyers to respond fully after he was notified of the intent to cancel his visa.
Officials at Melbourne’s airport, where Mr. Djokovic had been detained on arrival late on Wednesday, reneged on an agreement to give Mr. Djokovic until 8.30 a.m. to speak to tournament organizer Tennis Australia and lawyers, Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Djokovic was instead woken by officials around 6 a.m. and said he felt pressured to respond.
The player, who has long opposed mandatory vaccination, told border officials he was unvaccinated and had had Covid-19 twice, according to a transcript of the interview.
Mr. Kelly earlier told the court it appeared Mr. Djokovic had sought and received the required medical exemption from Covid-19 vaccination on the basis that he had contracted the virus last month. He had presented evidence of this before he travelled to Melbourne and when he landed on Wednesday evening.
“What more could this man have done?” Mr. Kelly said.
His ruling did not directly address the issue of whether the exemption on the grounds of an infection in the past six months was valid, which the government had disputed.
Tennis Australia’s CEO, Craig Tiley, said earlier that his organisation had spoken with federal and state officials for months to ensure the safe passage of players. Tennis Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although news of the ruling was greeted with drums and dancing by around 50 supporters outside the Melbourne court, wider public opinion in Australia, where more than 90 percent of the adult population is double vaccinated, has been largely against the player. Melbourne has experienced the world’s longest cumulative lockdown.
The country’s Covid-19 cases surpassed 1 million on Monday, with more than half recorded in the past week, driving up hospitalization numbers, straining supply chains, and overloading testing facilities.
The saga kicked off when Mr. Djokovic posted a photo of himself leaning on his luggage on Instagram last Tuesday, telling the world he was headed to Australia with a vaccination exemption.
Image: A supporter holds a photo of Novak Djokovic during a rally outside the Park Hotel in Melbourne, Australia, January 9, 2022. Reuters/Loren Elliott