Unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic asked an Australian court on Friday to block his deportation ahead of the Australian Open after the government canceled his visa for the second time due to COVID-19 entry rules.
Djokovic’s lawyers submitted their injunction request late at night, less than three hours after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used discretionary powers to revoke the visa.
The tennis world number one, vying for a record 21st Grand Slam trophy while defending his Australian title, had been informed on his arrival on January 5 that his visa, granted on the basis of a medical exemption from an obligation of vaccination for visitors, was invalid.
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He spent several days in immigration detention before that decision was revoked on procedural grounds. His lawyers said the government told them Djokovic would not be returned to custody on Friday night.
The Age newspaper reported that the 34-year-old Serb was summoned to appear before immigration authorities on Saturday.
Hawke said in a statement that he had “exercised my authority under Section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel the visa held by Mr. Novak Djokovic for reasons of health and good order, on the grounds that it was in the public interest to do so.
Under section 133C, Djokovic would not be able to obtain a visa for Australia for three years, except in compelling circumstances.
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The player’s legal team said Hawke argued that allowing Djokovic to stay would stir up anti-vaccination sentiment.
Although Djokovic has publicly opposed mandatory vaccinations, he has not campaigned against vaccinations in general, and his lawyers have called Hawke’s decision “grossly irrational”. They said they hoped their challenge could be heard by Sunday, the day before the tournament begins.
The controversy has intensified a global debate over the rights of the unvaccinated and has become a politically sensitive issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he campaigns for an election due in May.
Although Morrison’s government has won national support 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.
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“Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the outcome of those sacrifices to be protected,” Morrison said in a statement.
“That is what the minister is doing by taking this action today. Our strong border protection policies have kept Australians safe,” he said, adding he would make no further comment in view of the expected legal action.
Novak Djokovic tested positive for COVID-19 last month, court documents show
Djokovic was included in the draw as the top seed and was set to face fellow Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic in his opener next week.
Looking relaxed, he had practiced his serves and returns with his entourage on an empty court at Melbourne Park earlier on Friday, resting occasionally to wipe the sweat from his face.
Hawke said he had carefully reviewed information from Djokovic and Australian authorities, adding that the government was “firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Australia has suffered some of the longest lockdowns in the world, has a 90 per cent vaccination rate among adults and has seen a runaway Omicron outbreak bring nearly a million cases in the past two weeks.
Greece’s world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, speaking ahead of Hawke’s decision, said Djokovic was “playing by his own rules” and making vaccinated players “like fools”.
British tennis star Andy Murray told reporters at the Sydney Classic tournament that the situation was “not great for tennis, not great for the Australian Open, not great for Novak”.
An online poll by media group News Corp found 83% in favor of deporting Djokovic.
“Scott Morrison has made the rational decision to send the wealthy tennis star home after calculating the enormous political cost of special treatment,” wrote David Crowe, chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.
No vaccine, no access: Tennis champion Novak Djokovic battles deportation from Australia
Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese said: ‘It should never have come to this…how come this visa was granted in the first place if he was not eligible because’ he wasn’t fully vaccinated?”
Anti-vaxxers hailed Djokovic as a hero while his family and the Serbian government portrayed him as a victim of persecution.
In Belgrade, some seemed resigned to Djokovic’s absence from the tournament.
“He is a role model for all of us, but rules clearly need to be established,” Milan Majstorovic told Reuters TV. “I’m not sure how much politics is involved in this.”
Djokovic’s cause was not helped by a false entry declaration, where a box was ticked stating that he had not traveled overseas in the two weeks prior to his departure for Australia.
In fact, he had traveled between Spain and Serbia.
Djokovic blamed the mistake on his agent and admitted that he also shouldn’t have done an interview and photo shoot for a French newspaper on December 18 when he was infected with COVID-19.