Australia’s tennis chief boasted in an internal video leaked Saturday of his team’s “unbelievable job” despite a visa crisis engulfing the men’s world number one, Novak Djokovic.
Three days after Australian border agents tore up Djokovic’s visa over his Covid-19 vaccination status and placed him in a Melbourne detention centre, Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley addressed the widespread criticism of his organisation’s role.
“There is a lot finger pointing going on… but I can assure you our team has done an unbelievable job,” he said in a video published by the Sunday Herald Sun newspaper.
Although Djokovic won a legal reprieve from deportation until Monday, when his attempt to overturn his visa cancellation will be heard in court, it is unclear whether he will play in the January 17-30 Australian Open.
A second tennis player who was headed to the tournament — Czech doubles specialist Renata Voracova — had her visa cancelled after initially being allowed into the country, her government has confirmed.
She also was placed in the Melbourne centre, and said she was “waiting for a permit (to leave), on Saturday perhaps.”
“They bring me food and there’s a guard in the corridor… I feel a bit like in prison,” 38-year-old Voracova told Czech media.
The Tennis Australia boss said his organisation had chosen not to address the issue in public because of Djokovic’s lawsuit, but his team had done “everything they possibly could”.
Tennis Australia has been accused of misleading players in a memo, which advised them that a recent Covid-19 infection was grounds for a temporary medical exemption from vaccination.
But Australia’s government said that advice was only valid for Australian residents, not for foreign nationals trying to enter the country.
It added that the health minister warned Tennis Australia of this in November.
Foreigners are still mostly banned from travel to Australia, and those granted entry must be fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption.
Djokovic boasted before flying in that he had been given a Covid-19 vaccination exemption, widely believed to be on the grounds that he was recently infected with the virus.
– ‘Making a stand’ –
Djokovic, an outspoken vaccine sceptic, thanked fans for their support on Instagram.
“Thank you to people around the world for your continuous support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated,” the 34-year-old nine-time Australian Open champion said.
More than 100 fans and anti-vaccine protesters, who were banging drums and chanting “Novak”, rallied in the drizzle outside the Melbourne immigration holding facility on Saturday.
At an anti-vaccine rally attended by hundreds of people in another part of the city, some voiced support for Djokovic.
“I don’t want to see my grandchildren vaccinated,” said Margaret Beacham, a 67-year-old former primary school teacher.
“Novak is making a stand and it’s a worldwide opportunity for him to say something about vaccination status and how ridiculous it is.”
As much of the country tightened restrictions to battle an Omicron variant-fuelled wave, the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, posted a daily record of 51,356 cases Saturday.
The centre holding Djokovic, officially known as an “alternative place of detention”, houses about 32 migrants trapped in Australia’s hardline immigration system, some for years.
Detainees cannot leave the hotel and nobody is allowed in or out except staff.
The five-storey centre gained notoriety last year when a fire forced migrants to be evacuated, and maggots were allegedly found in the food.
Djokovic’s family have said the hotel is “dirty”.
– ‘Political witch hunt’ –
Australian star Nick Kyrgios, who has feuded with Djokovic in the past, praised him in a news conference Saturday.
“If he’s allowed to play the Australian Open, I don’t want any bar of him. I reckon he’s going to be pissed off,” Kyrgios said in Sydney ahead of a warm-up tournament before the Australian Open.
“You don’t become a great champion like that without being able to overcome some adversity like this.”
Djokovic’s father Srdjan told a crowd in Belgrade on Friday his son was the victim of a “political witch hunt”.
His son’s detention has sparked international scrutiny, with the Serbian government demanding explanations.
“Djokovic is not a criminal, terrorist or illegal migrant, but was treated that way by the Australian authorities which causes an understandable indignation of his fans and citizens of Serbia,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended revoking Djokovic’s visa.
“Rules are rules and there are no special cases,” he said.
Judge Anthony Kelly warned the star’s lawyers in a hearing Thursday that justice would move at its own pace through all necessary appeals.
“The tail won’t be wagging the dog here,” he said.