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Novak Djokovic locks into Australian Open practice, for now

With the official draw set to be released on Thursday, it remains to be seen if the minister arrives at a decision on Wednesday.
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic talks to his assistant Pepe Imaz(REUTERS)
Published on Jan 11, 2022 09:48 PM IST
ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai

The No 1 seeding, a second practice session—it appeared business as usual, finally, for Novak Djokovic on Tuesday, leading up to the 2022 Australian Open. Except, there was still swirling uncertainty around his possible deportation and more questions raised about the information provided by the Serb to enter Australia.

A day after the world No. 1 won a decisive court case that squashed his visa cancellation by the Australian government, released him from the immigration detention hotel and enabled him to remain in the country, Djokovic hit the court for the second time after the late Monday night visit to Melbourne Park. But the threat of his visa being revoked again still loomed due to the special powers resting on the country’s Minister for Immigration, despite Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly ruling in Djokovic’s favour.

At the time of going to press on Tuesday, Australia’s Immigration Minister Alex Hawke had not yet taken a call on whether or not to execute his “personal power of cancellation”. A spokesperson for the minister said that “in line with due process, Minister Hawke will thoroughly consider the matter”.

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An air of secrecy also shrouded Djokovic’s practice session on Tuesday inside the Rod Laver Arena, the showpiece court for the Australian Open. Doors were locked and the live feed cut off for the duration of the top-ranked player’s training with his coaching team that included former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic. It required drones and aerial shots by sections of the Australian media to capture a glimpse of the man in the eye of a storm in the midst of the Australian summer.

Tennis Australia then released a video footage of his training where Djokovic, dressed in a white t-shirt and a white cap, is seen hitting a few balls from behind the baseline and engaging in animated discussions with Ivanisevic. Later in the day, the organisers also named the defending and nine-time champion as the men’s top seed for the tournament beginning from Monday. With the official draw set to be released on Thursday, it remains to be seen if the minister arrives at a decision on Wednesday.

The Belgrade question

Even as that issue lingered, fresh questions arose on the documents filled out by the unvaccinated Djokovic—who sought medical exemption to play the Grand Slam on the grounds that he tested Covid positive last month—for his arrival into Australia. To a question in his Australian Travel Declaration form on whether he had travelled in the 14 days prior to his flight to Australia, the “No” box has been ticked, documents filed in the affidavit for the court case show.

However, Djokovic had reportedly been to Belgrade during the stated period before flying from Spain—where he was training—to Melbourne via Dubai on January 4. Social media images and videos show that he was in Belgrade around Christmas. Serbian handball star Petar Djordjic tweeted a picture posing with Djokovic on December 25, and also retweeted the same image posted by a journalist that mentions it was taken in Belgrade.

The particular question on the form was accompanied with a note that stated: “Giving false or misleading information is a serious offence. You may also be liable to a civil penalty for giving false or misleading information”. However, it is not immediately known if the Australian government has launched an official investigation into this. A spokesperson of the Australian Border Force told abc.net.au that it did not comment on operational matters.

"Let him play"

Meanwhile, contrasting reactions poured in to the probability of Djokovic taking part in the Australian Open. The ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, welcomed the court verdict in a statement that said the issue was "damaging on all fronts”. It, however, added that the body strongly recommended all players to get vaccinated.

The legendary Martina Navratilova tweeted “let him play”, while world No. 38 Marton Fucsovics said Djokovic had no right to. “People’s health is paramount, and there are rules that were outlined months ago, namely that everyone should vaccinate themselves. And Djokovic didn’t,” he said.

In an interview to the BBC, German great and Djokovic’s former coach Boris Becker said he had spoken to the Serb after the verdict. “… obviously he’s still shell-shocked about the last six days,” Becker said. “He’s a remarkable young man and his spirits are better. He went to train at midnight—that’s just who he is. He’s a different cat. He sees the world with a different pair of eyes.”

There were political after-effects too, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's office confirming that he had a word with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Monday, reiterating the country’s “non-discriminatory border policy”. Serbian media reports stated that Brnabic emphasised on the importance of the conditions for Djokovic to train for the tournament after being confined to a hotel room since Thursday.

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