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Djokovic in limbo amid Australian political tussle over COVID vaccination status

Xinhua/Bai Xuefei via Getty Images

(HONG KONG) — The world’s top-ranked tennis player, Novak Djokovic, remains on Australian soil — for now at least — after having his visa to enter the country cancelled on arrival in Melbourne late on Wednesday evening for the Australian Open.

Djokovic’s legal team launched a challenge against a decision to deport him, but he will need to wait until Monday to learn if he can stay on to play in the tournament, which begins on Jan. 17.

In the meantime, it appears that the 34-year-old Serb will be staying in ​immigration detention at the Park Hotel in inner Melbourne, which normally houses asylum seekers.

In a statement, the Australian Border Force confirmed that Djkovoic’s evidence for a medical exemption did not meet the requirements for entry after arriving in Dubai.

Among the considerations raised at the court hearing on Thursday was whether Djokovic was able to be moved to another hotel with tennis facilities. Tennis Australia also made a request that the issue be sorted by Tuesday because it would muck up scheduling. To that, Judge Anthony Kelly said, “the tail won’t be wagging the dog here.”

The Serbian tennis star announced on Tuesday evening that he’d been granted a medical exemption to play at the Open, where he’s chasing a record 21 grand slam titles.

The announcement sparked a massive public backlash down under, with social media platforms, letters-to-the-editor and talkback radio in Australia flooded with criticism towards Djokovic, who has refused to divulge his COVID-19 vaccination status but last year said was opposed to it.

Omicron cases have exploded in Australia in recent weeks since domestic borders were opened, and Victorian residents have suffered some of the strictest COVID-19 controls in the world over the past two years. More than 90% of Australia’s over-16 population is fully vaccinated, but some people still cannot travel internationally or interstate because of the measures.

There appears to be a blame game between the federal and state governments over the Djokovic debacle. Minister Karen Andrews, who is leading the charge for the Australian government, says that “the Victorian government has questions to answer.” But the Victorian government denies there’s any “finger-pointing,” saying “State Governments in Australia can’t grant a visa. That’s a fact.”

Australia is expected to hold a federal election sometime in the coming months, which could help explain why the claws are out and why political points are out to be won here — and Australia is currently run by a Liberal Party government, while the Victorian state is run by the rival Labour Party — so the friction was already there.

And there is now a diplomatic spat at play, with Serbia clearly slighted over Djokovic’s treatment down under.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Djokovic was a victim of “harassment” and vowed to help through diplomatic channels. Vucic said the whole nation was behind him.

Morrison said the decision was not linked to “any particular position in relation to Serbia,” adding that the country was a “good friend” of Australia.

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