Tennis star Novak Djokovic was recently reinstated after entering Australia without being vaccinated for COVID-19, but the controversy over the issue may not be over.
Although he got a win with his visa reinstatement, Djokovic still faces relegation ahead of the Australian Open as his COVID-19 vaccine medical exemption is being reviewed. If Australia’s immigration minister decides the exemption is not valid and threatens the public interest, Djokovic could be forced to leave the country.
The punishment for relegation is high, especially for an athlete who competes in tournaments across the country. Should this happen to Djokovic, he could be banned from entering Australia for up to three years due to sanctions, which would be a setback given his history of winning the Open.
Djokovic admitted to testing positive for COVID-19 in Serbia last month. However, he did not immediately isolate himself and took part in a photo shoot and an interview. In a statement, the tennis star called it an “error of judgment”.
The news that Djokovic would be allowed into the country sparked initial outrage and controversy has since dominated the lead-up to the Australian Open.
Djokovic acknowledged the loopholes when he sought to clarify what he called “persistent misinformation” about his movements after being infected last month – though he did not specify what inaccuracies he was referring to.
The statement was posted while men’s tennis No. 1 was holding a practice session at Rod Laver Arena, his third on the main court of the tournament since being released from four nights in immigration detention.
The nine-time and current Australian Open champion is in limbo ahead of the year’s first tennis major, starting next Monday. The stakes are particularly high as he is seeking a men’s record 21st Grand Slam singles title.
Court documents detailing Djokovic’s positive test sparked speculation over the star player’s appearance at events in his native Serbia last month. Further questions were raised about errors in his immigration form, which could result in the cancellation of his visa.
Regarding form, Djokovic said that he had not traveled in the 14 days prior to his flight to Australia, despite having been seen in Spain and Serbia in that period.
In his statement, Djokovic described the recent remarks as “hurtful” and said he wanted to address it in the interest of “reducing widespread concern in the community about my presence in Australia”.
The 34-year-old Serb said he took rapid tests that were negative and was asymptomatic before receiving a positive result from a PCR test he did out of “an abundance of caution” after attending a basketball game in Belgrade. 14.
He said that he received the result at the end of 17 December, and had exhausted all his commitments except a long-running interview with L’Equipe newspaper.
Djokovic said, “I felt obliged to move on…” When I went home to isolate for the required period after the interview, on reflection, it was an error of judgment.
Serbia requires people who are infected with COVID-19 to stay for eight days, but can exit early if they test negative during that period.
Djokovic addressed the Australian travel announcement saying it was submitted by his support team and that “my agent sincerely apologizes for the administrative mistake in checking the wrong box.”
“This was a human error and certainly not intentional,” he wrote. “My team has provided additional information to the Australian Government to clarify this matter.”
The decision could take some time – but there is time pressure as the draw to determine the bracket for the Australian Open is set to take place on Thursday.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s office issued a statement saying that Djokovic’s legal team had filed further documents against a possible cancellation of his visa, adding: “Naturally, this will affect the deadline for the decision.”
The issue is whether he has a valid exemption to the strict rules requiring vaccination to enter Australia because he has recently recovered from COVID-19.
His exemption for the competition was approved by the Victoria State Government and tournament organizer Tennis Australia. This apparently allowed him to obtain a visa to travel.
But the Australian Border Force rejected the exemption and canceled his visa on arrival before a federal judge overturned that decision. Lawyers for the government have said the infection was grounds for exemption only in cases in which the coronavirus caused serious illness – although it is not clear why he was issued a visa if that is the case.
The initial decision to let him compete sparked complaints that Djokovic was being given special treatment – and subsequent cancellation of his visa led to allegations that he was being targeted once the issue became political. The saga is playing out against a backdrop of growing concern over rising COVID-19 cases in Australia – and the government’s strategy to contain them.
Australia’s lawyer Greg Barnes, who is experienced in visa matters, told The Associated Press that the immigration minister has “personal power” to revoke the visa without giving Djokovic written notice or a reasonable amount of time to respond.
If Djokovic’s visa is revoked, his lawyers could go back to court to apply for an injunction that would prevent him from being forced to leave the country.
If the government decides instead to give notice first, Barnes said it could give Djokovic up to nine days to respond.
“It could be a way to give Djokovic a chance in the tournament and then kick him out,” Barnes said.
Sydney-based immigration lawyer Simon Jeans said there are “a lot of glitches” in the law and the immigration department would be taking its time to make sure any visa cancellations were “appeal-proof”.
“It’s not an easy task because if they cancel their visa and then Djokovic wins[an appeal]and he misses the opportunity to compete, he’ll be against the department for the prize money and all his legal fees. Can claim,” Jeans said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.