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Novak Djokovic is mounting a legal fight to avoid deportation from Australia, with his lawyers appearing in court on Thursday on his behalf.
The world No. 1 tennis player’s visa to enter the country was officially rejected Wednesday and he was set to be flown out of the country by Thursday evening, capping an extraordinary debacle in which he was controversially granted a vaccine mandate exemption but then botched his own visa paperwork.
Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday after securing a medical exemption to the Australian Open’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate—a decision that infuriated a nation where 90 percent of adults have been vaccinated yet some still can’t travel internationally or from state to state.
But, according to Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, the star was stopped at border control over a bizarre visa mix-up. The Australian Border Force said Djokovic’s team requested a type of visa that doesn’t apply to people who have been granted a medical exemption from the COVID vaccines.
The Age, citing a federal government source, said there were also questions over whether Djokovic had provided enough evidence to support his exemption anyway. He tried to claim that a recent COVID infection justified his exemption, but it wasn’t clear if that was enough to get around the federal rules, the news outlet reported.
Just hours before he was due to land in Australia, the federal government asked for help in amending his visa—but Victoria’s state government refused.
“The federal government has asked if we will support Novak Djokovic’s visa application to enter Australia,” Jaala Pulford, the Victorian sports minister, wrote on Twitter. “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.”
After Djokovic spent a night holed up at the airport, the Australian Border Force confirmed that the tennis star would be deported.
“Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia,” the agency said in a statement.
Djokovic’s lawyers intend to appeal the decision, The Age reported, citing two sources.
Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, told Serbian news outlets: “Tonight they can throw him in a dungeon, tomorrow they can put him in chains. The truth is he is like water and water paves its own path. Novak is the Spartacus of the new world which won’t tolerate injustice, colonialism and hypocrisy.”
Srdjan accused the Australian government of “holding my son captive” and threatened to “gather in the street” should the government not “let him go in half an hour.”
Novak Djokovic left the Melbourne airport on Thursday morning, The Age reported, and is holed up at the Park Hotel in Carlton while his lawyers work on his behalf at the Federal Circuit Court.
Before the visa snafu, the unexplained decision to grant a medical exemption to one of the world’s fittest men provoked widespread anger in the nation.
Stephen Parnis, a former vice president of the Australian Medical Association, wrote on Twitter: “I don’t care how good a tennis player he is. If he’s refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn’t be allowed in... If this exemption is true, it sends an appalling message to millions seeking to reduce [the COVID] risk to themselves and others.”
The deputy Victorian Liberal leader, lawmaker David Southwick, fumed in his own tweet: “What a disgrace! We have had 6 lockdowns—schools and small businesses closed, funerals and weddings told not to go ahead, families separated for months on end and now a tennis star gets an exemption... A kick in the guts to every Victorian.”
Tennis Australia has refused to disclose why Djokovic was granted a medical exemption when many others players weren’t. Speaking on Wednesday, as outrage spread across the nation, the group’s chief executive Craig Tiley appeared to urge the tennis star to tell the public why he was granted an exemption to help cool down the situation.
“Some of you will be upset about the fact that Novak has come in because of his statements of the past couple of years around vaccination,” he said, referring to Djokovic’s repeated anti-vaccine statements. “However, it’s ultimately up to him to discuss with the public his condition if you choose to do that, and the reason why he received an exemption.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison stepped in on Wednesday to warn Djokovic that, while Tennis Australia might have approved his exemption, it was still a government decision whether to allow him to enter the nation.
“If he is not vaccinated he must provide acceptable proof that he cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons,” Morrison said in Canberra on Wednesday, according to The Guardian. “If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and will be on the next plane home—there should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic.”
Djokovic hasn’t commented on the furor since he posted a snap of himself at an airport on Tuesday and wrote in the caption that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!!”
The top-tier tournament begins play in Melbourne on Jan. 17, but there’s now serious doubt as to whether Djokovic will be there.