Novak Djokovic has had his visa cancelled and is expected to be flown out of Australia later on Thursday.
Djokovic touched down at Tullamarine at 11.30pm and was hauled into an interview room at Melbourne airport to be quizzed by Australian Border Force officials over his vaccine exemption.
He was still being held there under armed guard at 5am, according to his father, Srdjan Djokovic, and just after 8am the news broke that his visa had been rejected and he would be flown out of the country.
“The [Australian Border Force] can confirm that Mr Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled,” the ABF said in a statement.
“Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia.
“The ABF can confirm Mr Djokovic had access to his phone.”
The Age reports that his lawyers are challenging the decision, which is believed to be driven by a lack of evidence supporting his vaccine exemption.
Djokovic senior had earlier told the B92 that “Novak is currently in a room where no one can enter. In front of the room are two policemen”.
“I have no idea what’s going on, they’re holding my son captive for five hours,” he told the Russian news agency Sputnik.
“This is a fight for the libertarian world, this is not just a fight for Novak, but a fight for the whole world! If they don’t let him go in half an hour, we will gather on the street, this is a fight for everyone.”
The tennis player was interrogated at the airport for at least five hours, with The Age reporting that there were concerns with the evidence supporting his vaccine exemption that that he may also have made a mistake with his visa application.
The newspaper reported a federal government source familiar with the matter saying it was unclear whether Djokovic had sufficient documentation to prove the reason for his exemption.
Unvaccinated people must present this evidence at the border to gain entry to Australia.
The government source told The Age it was unclear whether having been infected with COVID-19 in the past six months – the suspected justification for the player’s exemption – was sufficient to comply with Australian federal border requirements.
The tennis player’s detention at the airport came hours after Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews made clear that despite Djokovic being given the green light to play at the Australian Open, his entry into Australia was far from assured.
The world No.1 confirmed on Tuesday night that Tennis Australia had granted him a COVID-19 vaccination exemption to play at the 2022 Australian Open.
But in a statement released on Wednesday afternoon, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said he would only be allowed into the country if he complied with federal border requirements for overseas travellers to be fully vaccinated unless they have a medical exemption.
Hours later, Prime Minister Scott Morrison added to the uncertainty for the Serbian star, telling reporters that Djokovic would “be on the next plane home” if his exemption did not stand up to scrutiny.
“There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever,” Mr Morrison said.
One final obstacle
Ms Andrews said the Victorian government and Tennis Australia may have allowed Djokovic to play in the tournament without being vaccinated, but the decision of whether to let him in the country was the Commonwealth government’s.
She said individuals arriving in the country must either be fully vaccinated, or be able to provide adequate proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
Nevertheless, news of Djokovic’s exemption from Tennis Australia was enough to stoke outrage online, with many saying the Victorian government had imposed one rule for rich sports stars and another for the general public.
A long time coming
Djokovic’s disdain for vaccines has been a hot topic over the past two years.
In an April 2020 live-stream with other Serbian athletes, Djokovic said he was “opposed” to vaccinations.
He said he didn’t want to be “forced by someone to take a vaccine” to travel overseas.
But last year he flew to Australia and snagged his ninth AO title before Australia’s vaccination rollout was properly under way.
Then, as vaccination mandates came into effect across the country, it became unclear if Djokovic would skip the 2022 tournament, or receive the vaccine to compete.
The back and forth heated up in October when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said unvaccinated players would not compete at the 2022 Open.
“I am not going to ask and require people sitting in the grandstand, people working at the event to be vaccinated while players aren’t. We’re not going to be applying an exemption. Therefore, the issue is basically resolved,” Mr Andrews said.
Djokovic, meanwhile, refused to reveal his vaccination status.
He told Serbian newspaper Blic that it was a “private matter and an inappropriate inquiry”.
His father, Srdjan Djokovic, compared Victoria’s vaccine mandate to “blackmail”.
Tennis Australia ultimately changed its stance in December, releasing its COVID-19 vaccination protocols for the Open, including the process for players seeking medical exemptions.
All patrons attending the Open aged 12 years, two months or older must also be fully vaccinated or have a valid medical exemption.
A blind process
Tennis Australia’s exemption process follows guidelines set by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), under which four reasons warrant a temporary medical exemption for COVID vaccines:
An acute major medical condition, such as major surgery
A serious adverse reaction to a previous dose of vaccine
Evidence the vaccine is a risk to themselves or others during the vaccination process, due to underlying developmental or mental health disorders
Evidence of a PCR-confirmed COVID infection over the past six months.
It is unclear under which category the Serbian star falls, although he confirmed in May 2020 that he had tested positive after his catastrophic Adria Tour.
If Djokovic tested positive for COVID again in the past six months, he may have qualified for an exemption using PCR test results as evidence.
Australian Open boss Craig Tiley insisted Djokovic hadn’t received any special treatment, and said the approval process was entirely anonymous.
However, Tiley said it would be “helpful” if Djokovic shared the circumstances around his exemption to the public amid growing outrage.
“We would love … Novak to talk about it and help us with it, but ultimately it’s going to be up to him.”
A frosty reception
News of Djokovic’s exemption spread like wildfire on social media, drawing criticism across the board.
The news particularly hit hard for Victorians, who spent a total of 263 days under stay-at-home orders throughout the pandemic.
Geriatrician Dr Kate Miller called the announcement a “kick in the guts”.
“After everything Victorians have been through, Novak Djokovic getting a vaccine exemption is nothing short of a kick in the guts,” she tweeted.
AAP court reporter Karen Sweeney said Djokovic’s welcome to Melbourne is likely to be anything but warm and fuzzy.
Comedian Peter Helliar suggested that Djokovic’s attendance at the tournament might provide somewhat of a reprieve for controversial tennis great, Margaret Court.
Australian tennis players James Duckworth and Alex de Minaur apprehensively weighed in when asked about the controversy at the ATP Cup in Sydney.
“Yeah, apparently it’s an independent panel. So yeah, if he’s fit the criteria, he should be able to come,” Duckworth said.
“That’s very politically correct from you,” said de Minaur, with a chuckle.
“It’s very interesting, that’s all I’m gonna say,” de Minaur said.
“But, hey, it is what it is.”
Round 1 of the Australian Open will start at Melbourne Park on Monday, January 17.