Melbourne – Novak Djokovic faced at least 72 hours holed up in a Melbourne hotel for immigration detainees after he was denied entry into Australia on Thursday amid a political firestorm over his medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
The tennis star, who is chasing a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, remained in the country after his lawyers launched an appeal seeking to overturn the federal government decision. A court agreed not to deport him before a full hearing scheduled for Monday.
The saga, fueled by domestic political disputes about the country’s handling of a record surge in new COVID-19 infections, has led to an international incident, with Serbia’s president claiming his nation’s most celebrated sportsman was being harassed.
“They are keeping him as a prisoner,” Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, said at the family’s restaurant in Belgrade. “It’s not fair. It’s not human.”
She said she spoke to her son on Thursday, and said he was struggling to fall asleep.
“His accommodation terrible,” she said. “It’s just some small, immigration hotel, if it is a hotel at all. With bugs, it’s all dirty. The food is terrible.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the decision to deny Djokovic entry at a televised news conference.
“There are no special cases, rules are rules,” he said. “We will continue to make the right decisions when it comes to securing Australian borders in relation to this pandemic.”
Rafael Nadal, who is tied with Djokovic and Rodger Federer with a record 20 Grand Slam titles, told reporters in Melbourne he felt sorry for his rival, “but at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago.”
Djokovic, who has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status while publicly criticizing mandatory vaccines, kicked off the situation when he said on Instagram on Tuesday that he had received a medical exemption to compete in the tournament, which starts Jan. 17.
The announcement prompted an outcry in Australia, particularly in the host city of Melbourne, which has endured the world’s longest cumulative COVID-19 lockdown.
At a hearing in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia on Thursday evening, lawyers for Djokovic and the government agreed the player could remain in the country until at least Monday.
Djokovic’s fate is tied to a political fight in Australia, characterized by finger-pointing between Morrison’s conservative administration and the left-leaning Victoria state government over his medical exemption.
The squabbles rumbled on as Australia’s daily COVID-19 infections hit a record high for the fourth consecutive day, overwhelming hospitals and causing labor shortages.
Under Australia’s federal system, states and territories can issue exemptions from vaccination requirements to enter their jurisdictions. However, the federal government controls international borders and can challenge such exemptions.
Djokovic received his exemption from the Victorian government. While the reason for his medical exemption was not officially released, The Age newspaper in Melbourne reported on Thursday that it was on the basis that he had contracted COVID-19 in the past six months.
On his arrival, however, Federal Border Force officials at the airport said Djokovic was unable to justify the grounds for his exemption.
The Australian task force that sets the exemption parameters lists the risk of serious cardiac illness from inoculation and a COVID-19 infection in the past six months as qualifiers. But Morrison said Tennis Australia had been advised weeks ago that a recent infection did not meet the criteria for exemption.
Tennis Australia and Victoria government officials said Djokovic had received no preferential treatment.
With the Australian Open set to start Jan. 17, Nick Wood, a lawyer for Djokovic, told Judge Anthony Kelly that Tennis Australia advised they needed to know about his participation in the tournament by Tuesday.
In response, Kelly, who had asked when Djokovic was scheduled to play his first match, said: “If I can say with the respect necessary, the tail won’t be wagging the dog here.”
The move by the Australian government to block Djokovic’s entry has caused friction between Canberra and Belgrade.
“This persecution is unfair, starting with the Australian prime minister,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Serbian media. “They are acting as if the same set of rules apply to everyone, but they’ve let in others on the same grounds that Novak had applied to.”
Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, told media in Serbia that his son was ushered into an isolation room under police guard when he arrived at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport late on Wednesday after a 14-hour flight from Dubai.
His family held an emotional news conference at Djokovic’s restaurant in Belgrade, with his nine Australian Open trophies on display, before protesting in front of parliament.
“They are keeping him in captivity,” said his father, who earlier described his son to local media as “the Spartacus of the new world. “They are stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia.”
There was also support on the streets of the Serbian capital.
“He is the best in the history of that sport and they cannot break him in any other way but this one. But they are not going to break him,” said Belgrade resident Zdravko Cukic.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.