MELBOURNE – Unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic on Friday asked an Australian court to block his deportation ahead of the Australian Open after the government cancelled his visa for the second time over COVID-19 entry regulations.
Djokovic’s lawyers submitted their request for an injunction late at night, less than three hours after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used discretionary powers to revoke the visa.
The world tennis number one, bidding for a record 21st Grand Slam trophy in defending his Australian title, had been told on arrival on Jan. 5 that his visa, granted on the basis of a medical exemption from a vaccination requirement for visitors, was invalid.
He spent several days in immigration detention before that decision was revoked on procedural grounds. His lawyers said the government had told them Djokovic would not be taken back into detention on Friday night.
The Age newspaper reported that the 34-year-old Serbian had been summoned to appear before immigration officials on Saturday.
Hawke said in a statement that he had “exercised my power under Section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel the visa held by Mr Novak Djokovic on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so”.
Under Section 133C, Djokovic would not be able to secure a visa to Australia for three years, except in compelling circumstances.
The player’s legal team said Hawke had argued that allowing Djokovic to stay would excite anti-vaccination sentiment.
Although Djokovic has publicly opposed compulsory vaccination, he has not campaigned against vaccination in general, and his lawyers called Hawke’s decision “patently irrational”. They said they hoped their challenge could be heard by Sunday, the day before the tournament starts.
The controversy has intensified a global debate over the rights of the unvaccinated, and become a tricky political issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he campaigns for an election due by May.
While Morrison’s government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security during the pandemic, it has not escaped criticism for the seemingly inconsistent handling of Djokovic’s visa application
“Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected,” Morrison said in a statement.
“This is what the minister is doing in taking this action today. Our strong border protection policies have kept Australians safe,” he said, adding he would be making no further comment in view of expected legal proceedings.
Djokovic was included in the draw as top seed and was due to face fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic for his opening match next week.
Looking relaxed, he had practised his serves and returns with his entourage on an empty court at Melbourne Park earlier on Friday, occasionally resting to wipe sweat from his face.
Hawke said he had carefully considered information from Djokovic and Australian authorities, adding the government was “firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Australia has endured some of the world’s longest lockdowns, has a 90% vaccination rate among adults, and has seen a runaway Omicron outbreak bring nearly a million cases in the last two weeks.
Greek world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, speaking before Hawke’s decision, said Djokovic was “playing by his own rules” and making vaccinated players “look like fools”.
British tennis star Andy Murray told reporters at the Sydney Classic tournament that the situation was “Not great for the tennis, not great for the Australian Open, not great for Novak”.
An online poll by the News Corp media group found that 83% favoured deportation for Djokovic.
“Scott Morrison made the rational decision to send the wealthy tennis star home after calculating the enormous political cost of giving him special treatment,” wrote David Crowe, chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.
Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese said: “It should never have come to this … how is it that that visa was granted in the first place if he wasn’t eligible because he wasn’t fully vaccinated?”
Anti-vaxxers have hailed Djokovic as a hero while his family and the Serbian government have portrayed him as a victim of persecution.
In Belgrade, some appeared resigned to Djokovic missing the tournament.
“He is a role model to all of us, but rules must clearly be set,” Milan Majstorovic told Reuters TV. “I am unsure how big the involvement of the politics is in that.”
Djokovic’s cause was not helped by a wrong entry declaration, where a box was ticked stating he had not travelled abroad in the two weeks before leaving for Australia.
In fact, he had travelled between Spain and Serbia.
Djokovic blamed the error on his agent and acknowledged he also should not have done an interview and photoshoot for a French newspaper on Dec. 18 while infected with COVID-19.