World’s top male tennis player fighting deportation amid questions over COVID-19 status.
An Australian court has begun hearing an appeal by tennis star Novak Djokovic, the world’s top male player, over whether he met COVID-19 exemption rules to allow him entry to the country, less than two weeks before the start of the Australian Open tennis tournament.
Djokovic was detained at the airport when he arrived on Wednesday night after his visa was cancelled.
Authorities said the player did not have sufficient evidence to qualify for the medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination he said he had been given.
Australia has not yet fully opened its borders, and any non-resident foreigners are supposed to be fully vaccinated – with limited exemptions. News of Djokovic’s claimed exemption fuelled anger in a country, which is battling a new wave of coronavirus and where many families have been separated for years because of strict limits on international arrivals.
Djokovic says that he tested positive for COVID-19 in December making him eligible for the waiver.
The virtual hearing was due to begin at 10am (23:00 GMT) after the judge refused a government request to delay the case for a couple of days. Proceedings eventually got underway at 10.30am (23:30 GMT), after technological issues. There were a repeated drop-outs on a public livestream of the hearing.
Djokovic is bidding for a record 21st Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open, which starts in Melbourne on Jan 17.
He has been held at the Park Hotel, a so-called ‘alternative place of detention’ since his visa was revoked last week. The facility has become notorious for housing people recognised as refugees but still held in detention because they arrived in the country by boat.
Djokovic’s lawyers argue he had the necessary permissions to enter Australia, including an assessment from the Department of Home Affairs that responses on his travel declaration form indicated he met the conditions for quarantine-free arrival.
In submissions to the judge, they noted the player had ticked the box on the official government form saying that he could not be vaccinated for medical reasons and had uploaded supporting documents provided by the Chief Medical Officer and Tennis Australia.
Earlier they said the Serbian had told immigration officers repeatedly that if he were given his phone he would be able to get the information they were asking for.
Judge Anthony Kelly appeared quite sympathetic to the player’s situation: “The point I’m agitated about,” he said, “is what more this man could have done.”
In documents provided ahead of the proceedings, the government said the email could not be seen as an assurance “that his so-called ‘medical exemption’ would be accepted”, and his responses could be questioned and verified on his arrival.
The government also challenged Djokovic’s claim for a medical exemption on the basis that he had recently had COVID-19.
“There is no suggestion that the applicant had “acute major medical illness” in December 2021. All he has said is that he tested positive for COVID-19. This is not the same,” the filing said.