Novak Djokovic awaits verdict on fate of Australian visa as court hearing ends

Three judges will shortly make a decision on Novak Djokovic's visa determining whether he can play in the Australian Open, as Ian Woods reports

The court hearing for tennis star Novak Djokovic’s appeal against deportation in Australia ended on Sunday as Federal Court Chief Justice James Allsop said he and two fellow judges hoped to reach a verdict in a few hours.

The top-ranked male tennis player needs to win the appeal to defend his Australian Open title in play that begins on Monday.

He is scheduled to play the last match on Monday at the Rod Laver Arena, according to Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer, which announced the timing for Monday's matches after the court adjourned. Djokovic is due to play Miomir Kecmanovic, a fellow Serb ranked 78th in the world.

Djokovic returned to court on Sunday to fight a second attempt to deport him from Australia based on Immigration Minister Alex Hawke's assessment that the top-ranked player is considered a “talisman of a community of anti-vaccination sentiment.”

Hawke’s lawyer Stephen Lloyd took aim at Djokovic’s anti-vaccination stance and his “history of ignoring Covid safety measures."

Djokovic will be deported from Australia after his visa appeal failed. Credit: AP

Lawyers representing the men’s world number one tennis player attempted to convince Chief Justice Allsop, Justice Besanko and Justice O’Callaghan that the second cancellation of his visa should be overturned, arguing that the minister provided no evidence that Djokovic’s presence in Australia may “foster anti-vaccination sentiment.”

Djokovic’s lawyer Nick Wood also said the minister had failed to take into account how deporting the tennis star might “galvanise anti-vax activists,” as happened when the 34-year-old Serb faced deportation shortly after arriving in Melbourne on January 5.

Djokovic supporters had called for a boycott of the Australian Open.

Hundreds of activists held a peaceful rally outside the Melbourne Park complex that hosts the Australian Open on Saturday and planned another for Monday over Djokovic's treatment.

Anti vaccination protesters demonstrated outside Melbourne Park on Saturday in solidarity with the tennis star. Credit: AP

Djokovic spent Saturday night in hotel immigration and his lawyers had a morning meeting with immigration officials. Television footage showed the 34-year-old Serb wearing a face mask as he sat in a vehicle near an immigration detention hotel.

He was permitted to leave hotel detention to spend Sunday in his lawyers’ offices, under the guard of two immigration officials, while the challenge was heard via a video hearing.

Djokovic spent four nights confined to a hotel near downtown Melbourne before being released last Monday when he won a court challenge on procedural grounds against his first visa cancellation.

As the latest appeal proceedings began on Friday night, Djokovic was allowed to remain free, but the plan was for him to effectively return to immigration detention when he met with Australian Border Force officials at 8am on Saturday (9pm GMT Friday).

Police closed down a lane behind the building where Djokovic’s lawyers are based and two vehicles exited the building mid-afternoon local time on Saturday. In television footage, Djokovic could be seen wearing a face mask in the back of a vehicle near an immigration detention hotel. The Australian Associated Press reported that the tennis star later went back in detention.

Deportation from Australia can lead to a three-year ban on returning to the country, although that may be waived, depending on the circumstances.

Djokovic was believed to have returned to an immigration detention hotel in Melbourne on Saturday after visiting his lawyer's offices

Why was Djokovic's visa cancelled the second time?

On Friday, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke blocked the 34-year-old Serb’s visa on “health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so”. His statement added that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government “is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The main ground of appeal against Hawke’s decision, according to the athlete’s lawyers, was that it was not based on the health risk that Djokovic might pose by not being vaccinated, but on how he might be perceived by anti-vaxxers.

In his submission, Hawke said: "I consider that Mr Djokovic’s ongoing presence in Australia may lead to an increase in anti-vaccination sentiment generated in the Australian community, potentially leading to an increase in civil unrest of the kind previously experienced in Australia with rallies and protests which may themselves be a source of community transmission".Morrison himself welcomed Djokovic’s pending deportation. The whole episode has touched a nerve in Australia, and particularly in Victoria state, where locals went through hundreds of days of lockdowns during the worst of the pandemic and there is a vaccination rate among adults of more than 90%.

Australia is currently facing a massive surge in virus cases driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant. On Friday, the nation reported 130,000 new cases, including nearly 35,000 in Victoria state.

Although many infected people aren’t getting as sick as they did in previous outbreaks, the surge is still putting severe strain on the health system, with more than 4,400 people hospitalized. It’s also causing disruptions to workplaces and supply chains.

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On what basis was Djokovic's initial exemption granted?

Everyone at the Australian Open — including players, their support teams and spectators — is required to be vaccinated for the illness caused by the coronavirus. Djokovic is not inoculated and had sought a medical exemption on the grounds that he says he tested positive for Covid in December.

That exemption was approved by the Victoria state government and Tennis Australia, apparently allowing him to obtain a visa to travel. But the Australian Border Force rejected the exemption and canceled his visa when he landed in the country on January 5.

Djokovic spent four nights in an immigration detention hotel before a judge overturned that decision on procedural grounds, stating the tennis player did not have a lawyer with him at the airport.

That ruling allowed Djokovic to move freely around Australia and he has been practicing at Melbourne Park daily.

Eugenia Anang, migration lawyer in Sydney, said now that Djokovic has had his visa cancelled, the only other visa he can apply for to keep him in the country and give him a chance to play, is the Bridging E visa.

What has Djokovic said since the saga began?

The men’s world number one has acknowledged that his travel declaration was incorrect because it failed to indicate that he had been in multiple countries over the two weeks before his arrival in Australia.

In a post on social media on Wednesday that constituted his most extensive public comments on the whole episode, Djokovic blamed his agent for checking the wrong box on the form, calling it “a human error and certainly not deliberate”.

In that same post, Djokovic said he went ahead with an interview and a photo shoot with a French newspaper in Serbia despite knowing he had tested positive for Covid-19 two days earlier.

Djokovic has been attempting to use what he says was a positive test taken on December 16 to justify a medical exemption that would allow him to skirt the vaccine requirement.

What does this all mean for the Australian Open?

According to Grand Slam rules, if Djokovic is forced to pull out of the tournament before the order of play for Day 1 is announced, No. 5 seed Rublev would move into Djokovic’s spot in the bracket.

If Djokovic withdraws from the tournament after Monday’s schedule is released, he would be replaced in the field by what’s known as a “lucky loser” — a player who loses in the qualifying tournament but gets into the main draw because of another player’s exit before competition has started.

And if Djokovic plays in a match — or more — and then is told he can no longer participate in the tournament, his next opponent would simply advance to the following round and there would be no replacement.

Djokovic has a record nine Australian Open titles, including the past three in a row, part of his overall Grand Slam haul of 20 championships. He is tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most by a man in history.

'Australian Open is much more important than any player', tennis star Rafael Nadal says

As Djokovic's immigration battle continues to dominate headlines, the tennis star's fellow athletes have pointed out that the events should not overshadow the sport and that no player is bigger than the competition.

Speaking at the press conference ahead of the opening matches on Monday, world No.6 Rafael Nadal said, "I tell you one thing, it's very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that's more important than an event".

"Australian Open is much more important than any player. If he's playing finally, okay. If he's not playing, Australian Open will be great Australian Open with or without him", Nadal added before saying he respected Djokovic as a person and an athlete even if he didn't agree with "a lot of things that he did the last couple of weeks".