Tennis

Djokovic prepares Australian visa challenge as COVID vaccine furor mounts

Reuters
Djokovic prepares Australian visa challenge as COVID vaccine furor mounts

SUPPORT Novak Djokovic thanks fans on Instagram amid his Australian visa saga.

Andrej Isakovic/Reuters

Novak Djokovic faces a third day in Australian immigration detention, joined by Czech women's player Renata Voracova, as his lawyers prepare a legal challenge to his visa cancellation

MELBOURNE, Australia – Tennis world No. 1 Novak Djokovic kept a low profile in his third day in Australian immigration detention on Saturday, January 8, joined by Czech women’s player Renata Voracova as a blame game between Australian authorities over handling of COVID-19 vaccine exemptions gathered steam.

The Serbian superstar, a vocal opponent of vaccine mandates who came to Australia in hopes of winning his 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, has been holed up since Thursday in a modest Melbourne hotel after his visa was canceled due to problems with a medical exemption.

His lawyers are preparing a legal challenge to his visa cancellation, which is scheduled to go to a federal court hearing on Monday, and have been given until Saturday evening, local time, to file a summary of their case.

But other than a short post on Instagram thanking fans for their support, Djokovic, one of the world’s wealthiest athletes, has made no public appearance or comment since entering the Park Hotel, which is also home to dozens of asylum seekers trying to enter the country.

“Thank you to people around the world for your continuous support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated,” the Serbian wrote on Instagram.

The Australian newspaper reported Djokovic had requested access to his chef and a tennis court while in detention but that his request was denied. Groups of anti-vaccine protesters, Djokovic supporters and refugee advocates formed an unusual alliance outside the hotel, which was under police guard.

Detention felt like being in an action movie for Czech tennis player Voracova, but the worst feeling came when she learned her visa would be canceled ahead of the Australian Open, she told Czech media.

Tennis player Renata Voracova of the Czech Republic looks out a window at the Park Hotel where she is being held while she stays in Australia following the cancellation of her visa, the same government facility where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is believed to be in. Photo by Loren Elliott/Reuters

Voracova had entered Australia and played in Melbourne before being detained on Thursday, she said in an interview with news site idnes.cz, published on Friday.

“I can’t say they were mean to me,” Voracova was quoted as saying, when asked about being questioned by authorities. “But I was not prepared for the way everything played out. I felt like being in an action film.”

“Several practices in quarantine are not pleasant. You have to report and everything is allotted. I feel a bit like in prison,” she said from the Melbourne hotel where she said she is confined to her room, with the windows shut and escorts in the hallway.

“I felt the worst when they told me they would cancel my visa. Even the lawyer who was with me said I had all the necessary confirmation (documents) in order,” she said.

Voracova said she got the exemption because she had recovered from having COVID-19 before Christmas.

Australia’s government has released a letter showing it wrote to Tennis Australia, the local organizing body, in November saying that prior infection with COVID-19 was not necessarily grounds for exemption in Australia, as it was elsewhere.

She said she does not oppose vaccinations but did not have time to get the shot after the last season, as she had planned to.

The doubles specialist said she was still waiting to leave the country after deciding not to appeal the decision.

Voracova said she hoped Djokovic’s legal challenge against the rejection of his visa would be successful and that she came to Australia to concentrate on tennis, not visa disputes.

“I want them to let (Djokovic) play. We are athletes, we came because of tennis,” she said.

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As the Australian Border Force said it had canceled several other visas of people involved in the tournament, the federal and Victorian state governments and Tennis Australia denied responsibility for the dispute, which has been condemned by the Serbian government.

After News Corp papers published a document from Tennis Australia apparently advising players on ways to enter the country with a medical exemption from vaccination, the organizing body said it never knowingly misled players and had always urged players to be vaccinated.

“We have always been consistent in our communications to players that vaccination is the best course of action — not just as the right thing to do to protect themselves and others, but also as the best course of action to ensure they could arrive in Australia,” Tennis Australia said in a statement quoted by local media.

“We reject completely that the playing group was knowingly misled.”

Tennis Australia’s advice was based on the contents of a federal government website to which it had been referred by the federal health minister, the statement added.

Tennis Australia did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

The group’s information sheet, as published by News Corp, said players could enter the country with an “overseas medical exemption” that had been “reviewed by an Australian medical practitioner” then entered on a central database.

The document was distributed to players last month, News Corp reported. But the federal government released a letter showing it wrote to Tennis Australia in November saying that prior infection with COVID-19 was not necessarily grounds for exemption in Australia, as it was elsewhere.

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley defended the organization’s actions, according to a video that emerged on Saturday.

In an address to Tennis Australia staff, uploaded to News Corp websites, Tiley said he would tell the full story about the saga but was constrained because Djokovic was challenging his visa cancellation in court.

“We would like to share with you all the information, and we will,” he said in the video.

“We’ve chosen at this point not to be very public with it and simply because there is a pending lawsuit related to entry into Australia. Once that has run its course, we’ll be able to share more.

“There is a lot of finger-pointing going on and a lot of blaming going on, but I can assure you our team has done an unbelievable job and have done everything they possibly could according to all the instructions they have been provided.”

Djokovic, 34, has not revealed the grounds for his exemption and has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status. Vaccines are not mandatory in Australia but are required for some activities. – Rappler.com