MELBOURNE, Australia – Tennis superstar Novak Djokovic flew out of Australia on Sunday after a court upheld the government’s decision to cancel his visa, capping days of drama over the country’s COVID-19 entry rules and his unvaccinated status.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge Federal Court bench dealt a final blow to Djokovic’s hopes of chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open that starts on Monday, January 17.
The Serbian player went to the airport in Melbourne just hours later. Federal agents escorted him and his team from the business lounge to the gate, where he boarded an Emirates flight bound for Dubai. The flight took off shortly before 11 pm. (1200 GMT).
In a rollercoaster ride, the world’s top men’s player was first detained by immigration authorities on January 6, ordered released by a court on January 10 and then detained on Saturday again pending Sunday’s court hearing.
Djokovic said after the ruling he was “extremely disappointed” as it meant he could not take part in the tournament.
“I respect the Court’s ruling and I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country,” he said in a statement, and wished the tournament well.
Djokovic’s family said on Sunday they were “very disappointed” with Australian authorities’s decision to revoke his visa and deport him from the country.
“We are very disappointed with the decision of the Federal Court and the fact that Novak has to leave Australia,” the family said in a statement.
“Despite the scandalous behavior towards Novak, we believed that the sport would win,” it said.
It also said the court ruling was related with “politics and all (other) interests.”
Djokovic, 34, had appealed against Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s use of discretionary powers to cancel his visa. The minister had said Djokovic could be a threat to public order because his presence would encourage anti-vaccination sentiment amidst Australia’s worst coronavirus outbreak.
Chief Justice James Allsop said the 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 legal 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 that the three judges were unanimous in their ruling. Full reasoning behind the ruling would be released in coming days, he said.
‘Keep border strong’
The player’s visa saga has dominated headlines around the world and fueled a debate over the rights of people who opt to remain unvaccinated as governments take measures to protect their people from the two-year coronavirus pandemic.
The controversy became a political touchstone for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he prepares for an election due by May. His government has faced criticism for its handling of Djokovic’s visa application.
Morrison welcomed the court’s ruling, saying the decision will help “keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe.”
“It’s now time to get on with the Australian Open and get back to enjoying tennis over the summer,” he said in a statement.
Djokovic had been granted a visa to enter Australia, with a COVID-19 infection on December 16 providing the basis for a medical exemption from Australia’s requirements that all visitors be vaccinated. The exemption was organized through Tennis Australia.
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. The government said recent infection alone did not meet its standards for an exemption.
But the player also had some support, especially in his native Serbia and from Serbians living in Australia.
Serbian prime Minister Ana Brnabic said, “I think that the court decision is scandalous, I am disappointed, I think it demonstrated how the rule of law is functioning or better to say not functioning in some other countries.”
In the Serbian capital Belgrade, Djokovic’s hometown, many support him though some felt he should have been vaccinated.
“I think Australia should be ashamed of itself and that the decision was not a just one. I am sorry for Novak as a tennis player and as a person,” said Danilo Mircic, a student.
“If I were him, I would get vaccinated and avoid problems in the future,” said Aleksandar Janjic, a middle-aged computer programmer.
In Melbourne, around 70 Djokovic fans, including young children, sang folk songs and chanted in the Federal Court plaza while they waited for the court’s ruling.
They gathered around a loudspeaker to hear the judge reading out the decision, but it took several minutes after the court adjourned before they worked out that Djokovic had lost. Two women were weeping, while others started up chants for a short while before the crowd dispersed.
“What they did today is everything except justice,” said Natasha Marjnovic, 44, a Djokovic supporter who was wiping away tears. “They killed a beautiful sportsman and his career and for all of us who love tennis.”
Disruption to tennis
The men’s tennis governing body ATP said “today’s decision to uphold Novak Djokovic’s Australian visa cancellation marks the end of a deeply regrettable series of events.”
It added in a statement that decisions of legal authorities regarding public health must be respected.
Tennis Australia said it respected the decision.
On the tennis circuit, fellow players had become impatient for the media circus around Djokovic to end as it had become an unwelcome distraction, casting uncertainty over the draw for the tournament.
But several voiced sympathy for Djokovic following his legal defeat.
“There was a political agenda at play here with the elections coming up which couldn’t be more obvious,” Vasek Pospisil, a Canadian tennis player, said on Twitter.
“This is not his fault.”
The absence of Djokovic will be keenly felt at Melbourne Park on Monday as a 150th-ranked ‘lucky loser’ steps into the place of the 20-time Grand Slam champion when the first round of the Australian Open gets underway.
Djokovic had been scheduled to play fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic in the late match at Rod Laver Arena.
Seeing Djokovic play after a dramatic week of court challenges and fan protests would have been appointment viewing around the world, not least to see the reception of the crowd in a country where his refusal to vaccinate for COVID-19 has triggered outrage.
Instead, Italian journeyman Salvatore Caruso, who has never won an ATP title and bowed out during qualifying, replaces Djokovic in the draw as the ‘lucky loser’ and will play Kecmanovic at one of the lesser showcourts.
The late Rod Laver Arena slot has now been taken by third seed and Olympic champion Alexander Zverev, who will meet fellow German Daniel Altmaier, after the order of play was rejigged on Sunday following Djokovic’s court defeat.
Home hero and women’s top seed Ash Barty will take top billing when she opens her campaign for a first Australian Open title against Ukraine qualifier Lesia Tsurenko in the first evening match at Rod Laver Arena.
Women’s defending champion Naomi Osaka will play unseeded Colombian Camila Osorio in the second match of the day session at Rod Laver Arena, before men’s sixth seed Rafa Nadal takes to the court against American Marcos Giron. – Rappler.com