Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic is facing questions about his travel activity leading up to his flight to Australia, where was almost deported because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19.
Djokovic wants to defend his Australian Open title but must now deal with problems regarding a travel declaration form.
The Federal Circuit Court said he checked “no” on the Australian Travel Declaration form question that asks if he’s traveled in the past two weeks before his flight to Australia. However, he was seen in two different countries during that 14-day period.
Djokovic was seen playing tennis in Serbia on Christmas and training in Spain on December 31. Both sightings were within the two weeks.
Djokovic said the Tennis Australia organization completed his declaration form for him. But a border officer who initially canceled his visa said the form would have been filled out with information Djokovic provided.
On Monday, a judge ruled that Djokovic, who recently recovered from COVID-19, can stay in the country, thus bypassing Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination rules for those entering the nation. He could still be deported by the immigration minister based on the issues with his form.
The Australian Travel Declaration form says that giving inaccurate or misleading information is a serious crime and could lead to deportation.
The back-and-forth over whether Djokovic complied with Australia’s rules has caused a furor in the country and beyond. When the vocal skeptic of vaccines was first granted a visa to travel to Melbourne, many complained he was being given special treatment from a country known for its strict travel restrictions during the pandemic.
But amid a flood of confusing information about what the rules are, others have charged Djokovic has become a convenient scapegoat for an Australian government facing criticism for its recent handling of the pandemic.
The nine-time Australian Open winner held a practice Tuesday afternoon at Rod Laver Arena. Soon after, tournament organizers made him the top-seeded player in the men’s singles draw.
The athlete was seen hitting shots from behind the baseline, taking feedback from his coach, and stretching beside the court with a trainer. He spent four nights confined to an immigration hotel and now is getting back into the swing less than a week before the Grand Slam tournament starts.
“Despite all that has happened, I want to stay and try to compete @AustralianOpen. I remain focused on that,” Djokovic tweeted in the early hours of Tuesday. “I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans.”
But he still faces the prospect of deportation before the first match.
Djokovic was given an exemption by the Victoria state government and Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer, from its vaccination rules to compete because he was infected with COVID-19 last month. That apparently allowed him to receive a visa to travel.
But federal border authorities stopped him on arrival last week and canceled his visa. Lawyers for the government have said an infection in the previous six months was grounds for an exemption only in cases in which the coronavirus caused severe illness.
It’s not clear why Djokovic was ever granted a visa if that’s the case.
A federal judge reinstated Djokovic’s visa Monday on procedural grounds, saying he hadn’t been allowed enough time to speak to his lawyers to contest the decision. But Immigration Minister Alex Hawke is still considering using his power to deport the 34-year-old Serbian under separate legislation.
Hawke’s office issued a statement saying the matter was still under consideration.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government has blamed the debacle on Tennis Australia, which ministers accuse of misleading players about vaccine requirements. But newspapers have reported that the sporting body had pleaded with the Department of Home Affairs to check the visa paperwork of Djokovic and other players before their flights.
The drama has polarized opinions and elicited strong support for the 20-time Grand Slam winner in his native Serbia.
Morrison spoke about the issue with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić on Tuesday, and they agreed to keep in touch.
“The PM explained our non-discriminatory border policy and its role in protecting Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Morrison’s office said in a statement.
Brnabić asked Morrison to ensure Djokovic was treated with dignity, public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia reported. “The prime minister especially emphasized the importance of the conditions for training and physical preparation for the upcoming competition,” RTS reported.
The drama has put Morrison’s government in a tight spot ahead of elections due by May. While his government was widely praised for containing the nation’s COVID-19 death toll at the start of the pandemic, he has recently been criticized for loosening some rules, just as omicron cases have been rapidly surging.
The opposition home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, blamed the visa confusion on a lack of planning by Morrison’s government and said the saga made Australia “look like a bit of a joke” on the world stage.
“It does incredible damage to Australia” if Djokovic gets deported, Keneally told the Seven Network television, but “if he gets to stay it does incredible damage to our tough border laws and is a real insult to the Australians who did the hard work of lockdowns and vaccination.”
Andy Murray, who lost four Australian Open finals to Djokovic, said that the court win was a “positive” for his fellow major winner but that there were still details to clarify.
“I’m sure we’ll hear from him in the next few days,” Murray said. “I’m hoping we can move on from it now. It looks like he’s going to be able to play and compete in the Australian Open.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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