Novak Djokovic out of Australian Open, deported after federal court verdict

Updated on Jan 16, 2022 09:44 PM IST
  • The world No 1 men’s tennis player lost a final legal challenge after Australia’s immigration minister revoked his visa for a second time, for being unvaccinated.
Defending men's champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic (AP)
Defending men's champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic (AP)
By, Mumbai

In what seems to be ages ago, Novak Djokovic’s ouster from the 2020 US Open—defaulted from the fourth round after accidentally hitting a line judge with the ball—was, in the unanimous opinion of tennis experts, the most bizarre way for a world No 1 player to exit a tournament.

It took all of 16 months for that to be topped.

Djokovic, still ranked No 1, was forced to pack his bags and fly out of Australia on Sunday, deported less than 24 hours before he was to play his first-round match at the Rod Laver Arena to kickstart his Australian Open title defence. A three-judge bench of the country’s Federal Court in Melbourne unanimously rejected the Serb’s plea to overturn the Australian immigration minister’s decision to revoke his visa again for being unvaccinated.

For the second time in 10 days Djokovic had gone to the court in his bid to remain in Australia after his visa was initially revoked upon landing in Melbourne for not having enough merit to support his medical exemption to enter the country.

While his legal team managed to successfully get that decision quashed, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s execution of his special powers under the country’s Migration Act left little room to be overturned unless it was deemed “irrational or legally unreasonable”. “It is no part of the function of the court to decide upon the merits or wisdom of the decision,” Chief Justice James Allsop said while delivering the ruling.

Game, set and match. Mr. Djokovic had no challenges remaining. He was out of the Australian Open. He was out of Australia.

In a statement issued minutes after the verdict, Djokovic said he was “extremely disappointed” with the court ruling but respected it. Within the next few hours, he was seen at the Melbourne airport ready to leave the country.

It was a dramatic departure after an equally dramatic arrival. Announcing on social media that he had received exemption to play in the season-opening Grand Slam that mandated vaccination, Djokovic landed in Australia only to be stopped by the Australian Border Force at the airport on January 6. His visa revoked, he was shifted to an immigration detention hotel where he spent four nights before a Federal Circuit Court judge on January 10 termed the government’s decision as “unreasonable” and allowed Djokovic to stay in the country.

He was back on court for his training sessions, but he continued to face the heat. It emerged that Djokovic’s travel declaration form contained false information about whether he had travelled 14 days prior to arriving in Australia. Images of his public appearances around the time of his Covid positive result, which formed the basis of his medical exemption, began springing up. It forced him to issue a set of clarifications.

The minister announced his decision on Friday evening. It brought Djokovic back into detention to eventually be sent out of the country, capping a nightmarish trip for the nine-time Australian Open champion. It not only halted, at least for the time being, his bid for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title, but led to an uproar among Australians. The deportation carries the threat of Djokovic not being granted a visa for three years.

Djokovic said in his statement that he “will now be taking some time to rest and to recuperate”. Other statements flew thick and fast. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the verdict as a victory in keeping “our borders strong and Australians safe” while Serbia Prime Minister Ana Brnabic labelled it “scandalous”.

The ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, said the “decision to uphold Novak Djokovic’s Australian visa cancellation marks the end of a deeply regrettable series of events”. It added that it would take the “learnings from this situation”, which, evidently, wasn’t helped by the miscommunication between the tournament organisers and the state and federal governments. The ATP also “strongly recommend vaccination to all players”.

A few players spoke out on social media in support of Djokovic. Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, who along with Djokovic co-founded the Professional Tennis Players Association, said there was “political agenda at play here”. “Novak would never have gone to Australia if he had not been given an exemption to enter the country by the government,” he tweeted. Australia’s Nick Kyrgios also supported Djokovic and said he was personally thanked by the world No 1.

The organisers had to rejig Monday’s order of play, having scheduled Djokovic’s opener with fellow Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic in the night session on the showpiece court. Instead, Alexander Zverev’s match was shifted there, while Kecmanovic will play in a smaller arena against Italian Salvatore Caruso, the “lucky loser” who became the beneficiary of Djokovic’s withdrawal.

Top players had vented their frustration at the saga overshadowing the buildup to the tournament. Djokovic agreed. “I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me, and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love,” he said in the statement.

Time for some tennis now, at long last.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

    A romantic of the ferocious Rafael Nadal forehand, Rutvick Mehta loves his tennis but has been covering various other sport since 2012. He writes for HT.

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