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Novak Djokovic’s Australia Open visa and COVID-19 debacle, explained

The Australian government handed down a on ruling Friday blocking Novak Djokovic from entering the country for the 2022 Australian Open. It’s the latest blow in a bizarre series of events that began a month ago in Belgrade, and is now throwing the tournament into chaos. With three days until the draw is set to begin, Djokovic is back in detention while his lawyers continue their fight to let the world No. 1 into the country.

It’s understandable if you’ve been confused on how this all unfolded, because this mess has so many different parties to blame, so many people involved, and will go down as one of the biggest sports debacles of 2022, even though it’s only January.

It begins with registration for the Australian Open …

Players around the world began making their preparations for the Australian Open in early Dec. Questions swirled about the safety and logistics of holding the event in the middle of the global pandemic, but Tennis Australia, the governing body over the sport in the country, was adamant it could be held without incident.

Players were informed of the Australian government’s position that in order to enter the country individuals must either show proof of vaccination, or secure a medical exemption allowing them to enter unvaccinated. The government clearly made people aware that the only acceptable reason for an exemption was if the individual was diagnosed with an “acute major medical condition” that would put them at risk by receiving a Covid vaccine.

On Dec. 1, Srdjan Djokovic, Novak’s father, appeared on Serbian TV blasting the requirements for foreign nationals to enter Australia. He claimed Novak, who was widely known to be unvaccinated, was being “blackmailed” by requiring him to be vaccinated. Srdjan made it sound like his son was being singled out, when in reality the rules apply equally to every single person attempting to enter Australia since the beginning of the pandemic.

It appeared Djokovic’s personal choice not to be vaccinated would not allow him to compete in the Australian Open. The player’s camp expressed their anger at Tennis Australia, who, as a tennis organization, don’t get to have any say on international governmental travel guidelines.

Stunningly, Djokovic travels to Australia despite not being vaccinated

The assumption throughout much of December was that Djokovic would not play in the Australian Open because of his vaccine status. Then, on Jan. 4 he shocked the world by posting a photo at an airport, with his luggage, saying he was heading Down Under.

In it he wrote “I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission,” which most people took to mean that he’d received approval from the Australian government to enter, but this was odd considering there was no evidence of Djokovic having an acute medical condition which would warrant receiving an exemption. It raised questions whether he was being given preferential treatment compared to others who had attempted, and been denied entry to Australia.

Nevertheless, it appeared Djokovic would be heading to Australia to compete.

Djokovic arrives, and all hell breaks loose

Novak Djokovic arrived early on the morning of Jan. 5, and immediately things went wrong. Reports emerged that the tennis player had been denied entry to the country by immigration and customs officials, citing that his visa was filled out incorrectly. The documents he attempted to travel on were not sufficient for unvaccinated individuals seeking entry on a medical exemption. In addition there were questions whether his exemption met federal guidelines anyway.

Djokovic was questioned overnight, before he was told his visa was being revoked. The tennis player was isolated at a local hotel while the government decided what to do. At this point we had three different agencies all operating independently: Tennis Australia, who had a vested interest trying to get the world No. 1 into the country, the Australian federal government, which oversees the immigration requirements, and the state government of Victoria, where the open is held.

The buck was passed between the three, with Tennis Australia asking the federal government to intervene, who then passed it off to the Victorian government, who in turn said it wasn’t their responsibility to make immigration decisions — putting the onus back on the federal government.

All the while Djokovic’s father was freaking out back in Serbia, saying his son was being “held captive,” and demanding his release, threatening officials saying he would “fight them on the street.” Though it’s unclear how he planned to fight the Australian government on the street when he was in Serbia.

Djokovic’s camp filed a lawsuit asking that the tennis player be allowed into Australia. During this time Novak was still being held in a hotel.

Djokovic’s lawyers clear things up, and it gets even messier

While the battle was being waged in the courts, Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tilley acted confused. Tilley said publicly that one of the primary issues was that Djokovic’s medical exemption didn’t explain why he was being given an exemption. Nobody outside of the courts and officials have seen the document, but reports indicate that the “exemption” Djokovic provided didn’t indicate a medical condition that would allow him entry, nor did it meet the basic requirements the government was asking.

Essentially it sounds like he filed a doctor’s note, expecting it to hold up with Australian immigration, without checking first.

It wasn’t long before we learned why Djokovic believed he was clear. Lawyers for the player told the courts that their client had contracted Covid-19 on Dec. 14 while attending a basketball game. The prior infection, they believed, was enough justification for Djokovic to receive a vaccine exemption, however this was not allowed by the Australian government. It did not meet the necessary requirement laid out, regardless of whether other countries are accepting prior positive test results as a means for unvaccinated entry.

The revelation Djokovic contracted Covid on Dec. 14 opened up its own fresh hell. On his Instagram Djokovic wanted to clear the air, saying that he took a rapid antigen test on Dec. 16 (which was negative, though rapid tests are known to be inaccurate at times) and followed by receiving a PCR test. The following day, with the results of his PCR test still pending, Djokovic met with children at an event in Belgrade. He was Covid positive at the time, though he didn’t know it.

On the afternoon of Dec. 16, Djokovic received the results of his PCR test which showed he was positive for Covid-19. Now, knowing that he had Covid, confirmed by laboratory testing, he chose to travel to France for a photoshoot with the L’Equipe newspaper. He explained that he didn’t want to “let the journalist down” by cancelling, but once again, he was Covid positive and he knew it.

There appeared to be extensive work done to hide that Djokovic was positive, and it’s unclear why. Nobody at either the children’s event in Belgrade, or L’Equipe were told by Djokovic’s camp that the player was Covid-positive when he met with either. In addition, he did not reveal he had previously contracted the virus until information got out in his court case against the Australian government.

Djokovic wins his case due to misconduct

On Jan. 10, after batting the visa denial in the courts, it appeared Djokovic had “won” after lawyers for the government didn’t attempt to argue the issue in court. It appeared a “procedural fairness” claim on the part of Djokovic’s lawyers worked, saying their client was treated unfairly upon his arrival. In the case it was revealed that Djokovic was held for several hours while immigration officials decided on his visa, but did not allow him to make a phone call to his agent or lawyers to try and rectify the issue until several hours after he was detained.

Judge Anthony Kelly, who presided over the case, was described as “visibly frustrated” by how Djokovic was treated, saying:

“A person sitting in the shoes of [Mr Djokovic] is not going to care about the hundreds of provisions in the Migration Act. He just says ‘tell me what’s going on, I don’t understand this, give me my phone back and let’s try and get a real response.’ All of the facts and circumstances compel a conclusion, that given fair opportunity to deal with what he wanted to by 8.30, he would have. There was a responsibility on [the official] that he would have [been afforded this].”

In addition, lawyers for Djokovic allegedly produced a letter to Craig Tilley of Tennis Australia by a state government official, saying that a previous positive result would allow players to enter the country unvaccinated. The accuracy of this letter has not been confirmed, but in any event the contents were not accurate. At no point in time had the federal government relaxed its entry procedures to the unvaccinated to include those who previously contracted Covid.

Judge Kelly overturned the visa denial, and it appeared Djokovic would be clear to enter the country and compete in the Australian Open. The No. 1 was added to the draw, and this week it appeared he would begin the tournament on Monday.

There was just one person who stood in Djokovic’s way …

While all this was happening, those inside Australia were splintered. A vocal minority of Djokovic fans and anti-vaxxers rallied on behalf of the player, saying he should be free to enter and slamming the government’s policy of denying entry to the unvaccinated.

However, a majority of Australians were firmly against Djokovic’s entry. Australia has seen Covid-19 numbers soar with the Omicron variant and the relaxation of guidelines, with many citizens believing that allowing Djokovic in because of his fame while others were denied entry was simply unfair.

In their mind it was a hard pill to swallow to imagine Djokovic would take guidelines seriously, especially when (by his own admission) he’d attended a youth tennis event and a photo shoot while being Covid positive.

The final decision came down to Alex Hawke, the minister for immigration, citizenship, migrant services and cultural affairs. Hawke had the power to invoke ministerial powers to cancel Djokovic’s visa, independent of the initial cancelation at the Melbourne airport. In a statement he said:

Today I 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.

This decision followed orders by the Federal Circuit and Family Court on 10 January 2022, quashing a prior cancellation decision on procedural fairness grounds.

In making this decision, I carefully considered information provided to me by the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force and Mr Djokovic.

The Morrison Government is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I thank the officers of the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force who work every day to serve Australia’s interests in increasingly challenging operational environments.

Essentially the first visa denial was overturned by the courts, but Hawke lodged his own, completely independent of the court decision, which he is allowed to do. The move effectively ends Djokovic’s bid to play in the Australian Open, and he now faces deportation to Sebia.

What happens now?

With the Australian Open three days away, things are in chaos. Djokovic’s lawyers are keeping their client in isolation in Australia, now fighting Hawke’s ministerial powers to deport him.

The next step is huge for Djokovic’s future. Should his lawyers lose, and Novak is deported he will face a mandatory three year ban on entry to Australia, as laid out by the nation’s immigration laws. This could mean that he is unable to return to the Australian Open until his is 37 years old, which could effectively result in him never competing in the event again.

It’s unclear if there’s enough time to even hear a new case against Hawke’s decision before the start of the tournament, but the result has ramifications far beyond just the 2022 event.



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