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Why Tennis Superstar Novak Djokovic Has Been Detained By Australian Authorities



Novak Djokovic, the world number one men’s tennis player, sparked a furious reaction in Australia after announcing he had been given a vaccine exemption to play in the Australian Open later this month.

Now the 34-year-old Serbian star finds himself detained in an Australian immigration hotel fighting deportation, after having his visa revoked on his arrival in Melbourne and entry to the country denied.

What was meant to be the start to another Grand Slam campaign has escalated into a diplomatic storm.

Here’s how it has played out so far and what may happen next.

Why did Djokovic think he could enter Australia?

News that Djokovic had been approved to play in the Australian Open, which begins 17 January, was revealed by the player himself on Tuesday.

Australia requires all foreign visitors entering the country to be double vaccinated. Otherwise, they need to complete 14 days in quarantine. But Djokovic, who has said he is opposed to vaccination, said on social media he had gained a medical exemption.

Tennis Australia, the sporting body which runs the Australian Open, confirmed the top seed had been granted medical exemption by two independent medical panels organised by Tennis Australia and Victoria state.

Valid reasons for exemptions include an acute medical condition such as an inflammatory cardiac illness. A Covid-19 infection in the past six months also counted under the policy, which was announced in December and endorsed by the Victorian state government.

Federal authorities back then had no objection.

A fan draped in the Serbian flag looks up at the Park Hotel in Melbourne where Novak Djokovic has reportedly been detainedIMAGE SOURCE, EPA
Image caption,

Djokovic’s supporters have gathered outside the Melbourne hotel where he’s rumoured to be temporarily held

How did the Australian public react?

Djokovic, who has previously expressed anti-vaccination sentiments, has been a polarising figure during the pandemic. In 2020, he apologised after staging a commercial tennis tour where he and other tennis players contracted Covid-19.

In Australia, meanwhile, locals have lived through months of lockdown and restrictions. Most have followed government directions to get vaccinated, and over 90% of the adult population is now double-dosed.

But the country is also in the depths of its worst Covid-19 wave yet with over 70,000 new cases reported on Thursday. This is placing immense strain on hospitals and businesses, and public anxiety is high.

Initially, Mr Morrison had said he accepted the Victorian government’s decision to grant Djokovic and other tennis players medical exemptions. On Tuesday, he said federal authorities, who control the borders, would “act in accordance” with the state’s decision as “that’s how it works”.

But amid the public outrage, by Wednesday he had backflipped. Mr Morrison warned that Djokovic would be sent home if he failed to provide proper medical proof for his exemption.

Some have accused Mr Morrison of politicising the issue. The prime minister himself is under pressure amid the Covid-19 surge, and all of this is happening months before a federal election scheduled for May.

Why was Djokovic turned away at the airport?

Djokovic landed at Melbourne Airport at about 23:30 on Wednesday local time (12:30 GMT). He was promptly assessed and rejected for entry. His visa was cancelled on the spot and he was taken into temporary immigration detention.

Djokovic was taken away by Australian Border Force (ABF) officials to an immigration holding hotel, where he is now awaiting a decision on his fate. The rest of his team was allowed to enter Australia because their vaccination status was approved, Australian media reported.

What happens next?

Djokovic’s camp is furious about the sudden about-turn, and say he has being made an example of. Plus, there are three other unknown tennis players with exemptions who have been let into the country, according to Australian media.

The player launched an appeal against his visa cancellation immediately after he was held.

A hearing at the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia has been scheduled for Monday, so he can stay in the country at least until then. It is not yet clear whether he will spend the next few days in the government detention hotel.

Where does it leave his plans of playing in the Australian Open?

Djokovic, a nine-time Australian Open winner, has not yet commented on his ordeal.

It is still not clear whether he would still play in the event, even if he is allowed to stay.

What is the background to this?

While Tennis Australia had granted Djokovic approval under a policy endorsed by Victoria state, the same policy had not been approved by Canberra.

So it is clear that the federal government has overruled the state in this case. Australia is a federation but its constitution allocates border control to Canberra, not state authorities.

He also said it was not uncommon for people to be turned away upon landing in Australia, because immigration officials assess visa compliance upon arrival rather than prior to entry.

Meanwhile, Serbia has rallied round their national champion, with President Aleksander Vucic accusing Australian authorities of “harassing” Djokovic. Canberra has denied that claim.

Reporting by the BBC.

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