Djokovic Loses Shot at Tennis History as Australia Deports Star

By BLOOMBERG

Novak Djokovic’s anti-vaccination stance has cost him a potential payday of A$2.875 million ($2.1 million) and a shot at tennis history after the player lost his battle to remain in Australia and was deported. 

The Serbian boarded a flight from Melbourne Airport late Sunday night after the nation’s Federal Court upheld a decision to revoke his entry permit over fears his presence would strengthen anti-vaccination sentiment. It wasn’t up to the court to decide on the merits of the decision, only whether it was illogical or legally unreasonable, Chief Justice James Allsop said Sunday. 

“I respect the Court’s ruling and I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country,” Djokovic said in a statement. “I will now be taking some time to rest and to recuperate.” 

The player could face a three-year ban from entering Australia, but the prohibition may be waived if there under “compelling circumstances,” according to Australia’s Home Affairs department. Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday said there was an opportunity for such cases to return and that would be considered at the time, The Age newspaper reported.

 

It’s a blow to Djokovic’s hopes of winning a record 21st Grand Slam singles title and its sizable prize money. The world’s top ranked player has won the Australian Open the past three years and notched almost half of his Grand Slam titles at the tournament.

Djokovic is paying a high price for seeking to bypass an entry requirement in one of the world’s most vaccinated countries. Host-city Melbourne endured strict lockdowns during the pandemic, and the tennis star has faced public outrage since arriving with a medical exemption on Jan. 5. At the same time, Morrison is trying to show his strength in handling the Covid-19 pandemic and border rules ahead of a general election that must be called by May. 

The Association of Tennis Professionals said in a statement that Djokovic was one of the sport’s greatest champions and that his absence from the Australian Open was “a loss for the game”. 

“We know how turbulent the recent days have been for Novak and how much he wanted to defend his title in Melbourne. We wish him well and look forward to seeing him back on court soon,” the organization said. “ATP continues to strongly recommend vaccination to all players.”

Djokovic’s lawyers challenged Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s use of special powers to revoke his visa on grounds of health and good order, and on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so. The decision reversed an earlier court ruling that quashed his first visa cancellation for procedural reasons. 

Hawke argued the Serbian star’s presence risked strengthening anti-vaccination sentiment among a minority of the population and thus creating a public order risk, according to court documents. Djokovic is unvaccinated and has shown an “apparent disregard” for basic rules such as isolating after a positive test, which may encourage or influence others to emulate his conduct, Hawke said.

Lawyers for Djokovic said Hawke took an “unreasonable approach” to assessing whether his deportation was in the public interest, and cited no evidence that his presence may foster anti-vaccination sentiment. The only evidence of protests referring to Djokovic’s case were caused by the state canceling his visa the first time, barrister Nick Wood said in the hearing Sunday.

“Rightly or wrongly he is perceived to endorse an anti-vaccination view and his presence here is perceived to contribute to that,” barrister Stephen Lloyd, acting for the government, told the court.

Serbia’s president suggested the outcome was an attack not just on the player, but on his home country as well.

“They mistreated him for 10 days only to hand him a verdict that they had in mind from the very first day,” Aleksandar Vucic told reporters in Belgrade after a phone call with the tennis star, the state news agency Tanjug reported.

Djokovic was misled by having been offered an exemption to compete without being vaccinated, “but then the harassment began, a witch hunt against one person and country,” Vucic said. “They wanted to show how the world order works.” 

The unanimous court decision ends a tumultuous lead-up to the first tennis Grand Slam of 2022 after Djokovic was entered into the draw despite questions remaining over his ability to stay in the country. The saga has been asked about at most press conferences with the sport’s best players, drawing attention away from the tournament itself. 

“Australian Open is much more important than any player,” world no. 6 Rafael Nadal told reporters Saturday. “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.” 

Patrick Mouratolglou, the coach of Serena Williams, tweeted that “we will hopefully start talking about tennis.” Play begins Monday. 

Djokovic’s next chance at a 21st Grand Slam will be at the French Open, which starts in May.