Novak Djokovic detained at Melbourne Airport after being denied entry to Australia due to visa row

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Novak Djokovic faced a frosty reception from a city which has taken a tough line on lockdown - AFP
Novak Djokovic faced a frosty reception from a city which has taken a tough line on lockdown - AFP

An alleged visa bungle has thrown Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open defence into fresh doubt with his entry into Melbourne continuing to be delayed.

In what is fast becoming a major diplomatic incident, Djokovic, having landed at around 12.30pm UK time, continues to be detained at Melbourne Airport amid claims he had attempted to enter the country using invalid documents following a mix-up with his visa. It was also reported that there were question marks over whether he had adequate documentation to support the “medical exemption” he was granted to allow him to play at the first grand slam of the year.

Djokovic had gleefully announced on Tuesday that he had been given an exemption from having to be vaccinated against coronavirus before boarding a 14-hour flight from Dubai to Melbourne. But it went from triumph to disaster for the world number one before he even touched down after an “issue” emerged with his Australian Travel Declaration.

The Serbian was detained for hours upon arrival, with each passing minute appearing to increase the likelihood he would be thrown out of the country and denied the chance to go for a record 21st Grand Slam.

Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, told Australian breakfast show Sunrise: “They are holding my son captive. If they don’t release him in the next half an hour, we will fight them on the street.”

He also told his country's media that his son was waiting alone in a room at the airport under armed guard for a final decision on whether he could enter Australia. "Novak is currently in a room which no one can enter," he told the B92 internet portal. "In front of the room are two policemen."

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, meanwhile, said his country was doing “everything to see that the harassment of Novak Djokovic is brought to an end immediately”.

Meanwhile, Djokovic's coach and fellow Grand Slam champion Goran Ivanisevic posted a photo of himself on Instagram from a room in Melbourne, along with the caption: "Not the most usual trip Down Under."

Djokovic’s detention followed outrage over the decision to grant him an exemption to enter a nation with some of the strictest rules anywhere when it comes to combating Covid-19, one in which an unprecedented regime of lockdowns has been inflicted on its citizens.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison warned the 34-year-old he would be “on the next plane home” if he could not prove he had a genuine medical exemption, adding: “There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever.”

There was mounting speculation that the basis for Djokovic’s exemption was a rule designed to apply to those to have recovered from Covid-19 in the previous six months rather than one covering those with underlying health issues.

Tennis legend Rod Laver told the Herald Sun it would be in Djokovic’s “best interests to own up” about the criteria used in his case, adding: “If he’s got a reason for [the exemption] then ... we should know it.”

Laver also warned Djokovic he could face hostility. “I think it might get ugly,” Laver said. “I would think the Victorian people would be thinking, ‘Yes, I would love to see him play and compete but there’s a right way and a wrong way’.”

Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley also called on the Serbian to explain why he has been allowed to compete. “I think it’ll certainly be helpful if Novak was to explain the condition for which he sought an exemption and he got the exemption,” he said. “But ultimately, it’s up to him.”

Another former Australian player, Sam Groth, accused Djokovic of “laughing in the face of Victorians”, branding it a “brazen move” for the 20-time grand slam winner to announce his exemption on social media without offering a more detailed explanation.

Officials were said to have sought formal backing for his application in order to grant him entry, with the state’s acting sports minister, Jaala Pulford, confirming on Twitter that such a request had been rejected.

The Courier Mail front page - COURIER MAIL
The Courier Mail front page - COURIER MAIL
The West Australian front page - THE WEST AUSTRALIAN
The West Australian front page - THE WEST AUSTRALIAN

She posted: “The Federal Government has asked if we will support Novak Djokovic’s visa application to enter Australia. We will not be providing Novak Djokovic with individual visa application support to participate in the 2022 Australian Open grand slam.

“We’ve always been clear on two points: visa approvals are a matter for the Federal Government, and medical exemptions are a matter for doctors.”

The Association of Tennis Professionals said last week that 95 of the world’s top 100 had been vaccinated against Covid. But Djokovic appears to be an exception.

Unsurprisingly, there was a feeling on Tuesday that the world No 1 might be receiving preferential treatment on account of his huge profile and standing within the game. “I think if it was me that wasn't vaccinated, I wouldn't be getting an exemption,” said the British doubles specialist Jamie Murray.

Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews had earlier appeared to suggest that the federal government could overturn Djokovic’s eligibility to enter the country, unless he proved on arrival the medical grounds that had led to his Australian Open exemption.

That was quickly followed by reports of an “issue” emerging with the Acting Australian Border Force Commissioner around Djokovic’s Australian Travel Declaration, with a report from the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation suggesting his vaccination status could result in the Serbian being blocked from entering the country even though he was already on his way to Melbourne.

Serbia fans display their flag in support of Novak Djokovic during the group stage match between Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut and Serbia's Dusan Lajovic - Reuters
Serbia fans display their flag in support of Novak Djokovic during the group stage match between Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut and Serbia's Dusan Lajovic - Reuters

In a statement titled “Australia’s border rules apply to everyone”, Andrews said: “Any individual seeking to enter Australia must comply with our strict border requirements.

“While the Victorian Government and Tennis Australia may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth Government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border.

“Since Dec 15 2021 fully vaccinated eligible visa holders can travel to Australia without needing to apply for a travel exemption, and enter eligible states and territories quarantine free.

“If an arriving individual is not vaccinated, they must provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons to be able to access the same travel arrangement as fully vaccinated travellers.

“Australian Border Force will continue to ensure that those who arrive at our border comply with our strict border requirements.”

After weeks of debate over Djokovic’s presence – or otherwise – at the Australian Open, the news had finally emerged via his own social media channels on Tuesday morning. “I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the Christmas break,” he wrote in his post, “and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!”

While Djokovic’s tone was triumphant, he was always likely to experience a chilly welcome in Melbourne – a city which has taken a tough line on lockdowns. No ordinary member of the public is allowed into Melbourne Park – the venue for the upcoming Australian Open – without evidence of vaccination.

This issue will rumble on throughout the coming month, and indeed the coming season, given that the Australian Open is unlikely to be the last tournament to insist on vaccinations or carefully scrutinised exemptions.