SYDNEY (Reuters) – Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic on Sunday began his fourth day in immigration detention as Australian authorities finalised a legal defence explaining their decision to cancel his visa over questions about his COVID-19 vaccine exemption.
The Serbian sports superstar was hoping to win his 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open later this month, but has instead of training been confined to a hotel used to accommodate asylum seekers. He is challenging a decision to cancel his visa after being stopped on arrival at Melbourne Airport early on Thursday.
A vocal opponent of vaccine mandates, Djokovic had declined to reveal his vaccination status or reason for seeking a medical exemption for sidestepping Australia’s vaccine rules. He broke his silence on Saturday by filing a legal challenge saying he was granted an exemption due to contracting – and recovering from – the virus in December.
The Australian government has said its health department notified Australian Open organising body Tennis Australia last November that a recent COVID-19 infection was not necessarily grounds for exemption in the country, as it was elsewhere. Djokovic’s lawsuit says the Department of Home Affairs wrote to him this month to say he had satisfied the requirements to enter the country.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt, asked about the Djokovic furore at a media conference on Sunday, declined to comment since it was before the court, but noted that several other people involved in the tournament had their visas revoked.
Czech player Renata Voracova, who was detained in the same detention hotel as Djokovic and had her visa revoked after issues with her vaccine exemption, left the country without challenging her status, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.
The Djokovic matter is scheduled to go to a hearing on Monday.
The tennis star’s situation has drawn an unlikely crowd to the Melbourne hotel which, until this month, was best known in Australia for media reports about its asylum seeker occupants claiming they were served food containing maggots.
Anti-vaccine protesters, refugee advocates and Djokovic fans have converged outside the modest building, which is under police guard.
“Djokovic’s detention has got nothing to with rules; it’s got everything to do with political opportunism,” Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, said in a statement, ahead of a planned protest on Sunday.
“Inadvertently, the government’s detention of Djokovic in the Park hotel has put the focus squarely on the systematic abuse of refugees’ rights in Australia’s detention system.”
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the player had been given gluten-free food, tools to exercise and a SIM card to stay in contact with the outside world.
“It’s a positive tone from the Australian side. The Serbian government is ready to provide all the guarantees necessary for Novak to be allowed to enter Australia, the Serbian president is also involved,” Brnabic said.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Paul Simao)
Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.