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SYDNEY, Australia – An Australian court upheld a government decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa on Sunday, January 16, ending the unvaccinated tennis superstar’s hopes of winning the Australian Open and racking up a record-breaking 21 men’s Grand Slam titles.
Ruling on a case that has gripped Australia and the sporting world for more than a week, a three-judge bench of the Federal Court heard government lawyers’ arguments that Djokovic’s continued presence risked whipping up anti-vaccination sentiment during Australia’s worst outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
A medical exemption that allowed the Serbian tennis world No. 1 to enter the country without being vaccinated had sparked fury in Australia, and became a political issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has to call a federal election before May.
Chief Justice James Allsop said the Federal Court ruling was based on the lawfulness and legality of the minister’s decision in the context of the three grounds of appeal Djokovic’s team lodged.
“It is no part of the function of the court to decide upon the merits or wisdom of the decision,” Allsop said, adding the decision was unanimous among the three judges. Full reasoning behind the decision would be released in coming days, he said.
Djokovic said in a statement on Sunday that he was “extremely disappointed” with the decision to cancel his visa to enter Australia, but would respect it and cooperate with the authorities in relation to his departure from the country.
“I will now be taking some time to rest and to recuperate, before making any further comments beyond this,” the 34-year-old said in a statement after the court dismissed his case.
It was not immediately clear when the government would seek to remove Djokovic.
“Today’s decision to uphold Novak Djokovic’s Australian visa cancellation marks the end of a deeply regrettable series of events,” the ATP, the men’s tennis governing body, said in a statement.
“Ultimately, decisions of legal authorities regarding matters of public health must be respected. More time is required to take stock of the facts and to take the learnings from this situation.”
On Sunday morning, the Serbian champion was escorted to his lawyers’ office by immigration officials to attend the virtual court hearing, having spent Saturday night, January 15, back in an immigration detention hotel.
Nick Wood, acting for Djokovic, pointed to how the player competed in the Australian Open and other major tournaments around the world last year without provoking protests or unrest.
“If there was any foundation for thinking that Mr. Djokovic’s presence and participation at a tennis tournament might somehow lead to this anti-vax sentiment, one would expect that it would be supported by some kind of evidence about anti-vax protests or rallies or the like at tennis events,” Wood said.
But Wood told the court that nothing of the kind had been identified by the minister in his decision to cancel the visa.
Wood said that instead the possibility was a forced removal of Djokovic may spur the anti-vaccination movement and protests.
Stephen Lloyd, for the government, said Djokovic’s opposition to vaccination could be seen not only in his public statements but also because he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 even after vaccines became widely available.
The government lawyer acknowledged that there was a risk that canceling Djokovic’s visa could spark “unrest” among people who disagreed.
But, Lloyd argued that given Djokovic’s status as a high-profile athlete, there was a danger that his stance and behavior could encourage others outside the established anti-vaccination community to flout health safety guidelines.
“The minister took the view that his presence in Australia would encourage people to emulate his apparent disregard for those kind of safety measures,” Lloyd said.
He cited Djokovic’s participation in a media interview and photoshoot when he knew he was infected with COVID-19 last month.
Djokovic had been granted a visa, as his recent infection provided the basis for him seeking a medical exemption from Australia’s vaccination requirements to play in the Open.
That exemption prompted widespread anger in Australia, which has undergone some the world’s toughest COVID-19 lockdowns and where more than 90% of adults are vaccinated.
‘Tired of the situation’
The buildup to the tournament has been eclipsed by the drama over the unvaccinated star’s bid to play. Spanish great Rafael Nadal, tied with Djokovic for 20 Grand Slam titles, was one of several top players in town who said they just wanted the circus to be over.
Djokovic’s leading rivals had been increasingly impatient with the uncertainty hanging over the draw and the cloud hanging over their sport.
“Honestly I’m little bit tired of the situation because I just believe that it’s important to talk about our sport, about tennis,” Nadal told reporters at Melbourne Park on Saturday, where the event will be played.
However, third seed Alexander Zverev said the Serb had been treated unfairly and might have been used as a political pawn by Australian authorities.
“I don’t think he would have traveled here just by luck without him thinking he would be able to play, with him having the right authorization to be in the country,” said the German.
“If you would have the visa, you would think you would be playing.
“I think Novak is a very big name, a global superstar. I think that he is someone that maybe people think they can make a big deal out of it just because it’s Novak.
“The Australian government and the Victorian government should have been clear on what is going to happen beforehand. I think it’s not very fair for a person to come here and not be able to play.”
Fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas said the situation had taken the spotlight away from tennis.
“I won’t lie. It has been pretty much on every news outlet the last couple of weeks,” the Greek said at Melbourne Park, two days before the tournament starts on Monday, January 17.
“Not enough tennis has been talked about in the last couple of weeks, which is a shame.”
Australian Open women’s champion Naomi Osaka empathized with Djokovic’s predicament, having felt discomfort being the center of attention when she withdrew from the French Open following a row with organizers over mandatory media commitments.
“I think it’s an unfortunate situation. He’s such a great player and it’s kind of sad that some people might remember in this way,” said the Japanese 13th seed.
“I know what it’s like to kind of be in his situation in a place that you’re getting asked about that person, to just see comments from other players, it’s not the greatest thing. Just trying to keep it positive.” – Rappler.com