Australia has canceled the visa of unvaccinated world tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic and a court has ordered him to report to an immigration detention hotel, leaving the Serbian tennis star's chances of defending his title at the
Grand Slam tournament in Melbourne up in the air just days before play starts.
A Federal Court judge said late on January 14 that the 34-year-old tennis star must report to the detention center by 8 a.m. local time the next day after Djokovic's lawyers requested an injunction to stop the revocation of his visa, as ordered hours earlier by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke.
The Serb had been hoping to begin his quest for a record 21 st Grand Slam title when play begins in Melbourne on January 17. Instead, his next court date has been set for January 15 for an immigration hearing to stay in the country.
But that came to a screeching halt when Hawke issued a statement on January 14 saying that he was using his discretionary powers on visa issues to cancel Djokovic's visa "on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so."
"This decision followed orders by the Federal Circuit and Family Court on 10 January 2022, quashing a prior cancellation decision on procedural fairness grounds," Hawke's statement said.
"In making this decision, I carefully considered information provided to me by the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force and Mr. Djokovic."
Djokovic's legal team said the decision to revoke the visa was based on the argument that allowing Djokovic to stay would excite anti-vaccination sentiment. They countered that while he has publicly opposed compulsory vaccination, he has not campaigned against vaccination in general, making Hawke's decision 'patently irrational.'
The news came after Djokovic had practiced serving and returning on a court at Melbourne Park with no spectators present.
Djokovic had been included in the tournament's draw as the top seed, but he had remained in limbo as Hawke considered whether to cancel his visa for a second time over COVID-19 entry regulations.
Australia's pandemic response has been seen as very restrictive, including an insistence for those entering the country to be double-vaccinated or show acceptable proof they cannot be vaccinated to enter quarantine-free.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the visa cancelation saying it was carried out on the basis of public interest.
'Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected,' he said in a statement.
'That is what the (immigration) minister is doing in taking this action today...Our strong border protection policies have kept Australians safe, prior to COVID and now during the pandemic,' he added.
Djokovic, a vaccine skeptic, traveled to Melbourne with a medical exemption to Australia's requirements for visitors to be inoculated against COVID-19.
He appeared eager to defend his title and vie for a record-breaking Grand Slam trophy when the tournament gets under way on January 17.
His troubles started immediately upon arrival in Melbourne when the Australian Border Force decided his exemption was invalid and put him in an immigration detention hotel.
On January 10, an Australian judge reinstated Djokovic's visa and allowed him out of detention. Since then the matter has been before Hawke, whose spokesman said earlier this week that 'lengthy further submissions' from Djokovic's legal team had delayed a decision.
The situation has caused an outcry in Australia, which has endured some of the world's longest lockdowns and is now experiencing runaway cases attributed to the omicron variant. Serbia, on the other hand, has rallied behind the player, with some Serbs expressing anger over his treatment.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham defended the government's policies on January 14, saying they were 'crystal clear.'
They require noncitizens who enter Australia to be double dose vaccinated "unless they have a clear and valid medical exemption against that,' Birmingham said on Australian television.
'That policy has not changed, and we will continue to apply that policy rigorously,' Birmingham said.
Djokovic's cause was not helped by a mistake on his entry declaration on which a box was ticked stating he had not traveled abroad in the two weeks before arriving in Australia. In fact, he had traveled between Spain and Serbia.
Djokovic blamed the error on his agent and acknowledged that he also should not have done an interview and photoshoot for a French newspaper on December 18 while infected with COVID-19.
Some tennis players say Djokovic should be allowed to play, but not all have been supportive.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, ranked fourth in the world, criticized his behavior, telling Indian broadcaster WION, "For sure he has been playing by his own rules.'
With reporting by Retuers and AFP
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036