Sports

Novak Djokovic back in court to fight deportation from Australia

Novak Djokovic returned to court on Sunday to fight an attempt to deport him because of what a government minister described as a perception that the tennis star was a "talisman of a community of anti-vaccination sentiment."

3 Federal Court judges have been scheduled to hear the challenge

Novak Djokovic practises at Rod Laver Arena ahead of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on Tuesday in Melbourne, Australia. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said he used his ministerial discretion to revoke Djokovic's visa on public interest grounds three days before the Australian Open is to begin. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic returned to court on Sunday to fight an attempt to deport him because of what a government minister described as a perception that the tennis star was a "talisman of a community of anti-vaccination sentiment."

Three Federal Court judges have been scheduled to hear the challenge, a day before the men's No. 1-ranked player and nine-time Australian Open champion was due to begin his title defence.

Djokovic spent Saturday night detained back in an immigration hotel after his lawyers had a morning meeting with immigration officials.

Television footage showed the 34-year-old Serb wearing a face mask as he sat in a vehicle near the hotel.

He is permitted to leave hotel detention to spend Sunday in his lawyers' offices, under the guard of two immigration officials, while the challenge is heard via a video hearing.

Djokovic spent four nights confined to an immigration hotel near downtown Melbourne before being released last Monday when he won a court challenge on procedural grounds against his first visa cancellation.

WATCH | Djokovic says his agent made error on Australia entry form: 

Novak Djokovic blames human error for inaccurate travel declaration

4 months ago
Duration 1:52
Novak Djokovic says human error is to blame for an inaccurate travel declaration form that claimed the tennis champion hadn't travelled for two weeks before arriving in Australia for an upcoming tournament in Melbourne.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke on Friday blocked the 34-year-old Serb's visa, which was originally revoked when he landed at a Melbourne airport on Jan. 5.

Deportation from Australia can lead to a three-year ban on returning to the country, although that may be waived, depending on the circumstances.

Djokovic has acknowledged that his travel declaration was incorrect because it failed to indicate that he had been in multiple countries over the two weeks before his arrival in Australia.

But the incorrect travel information is not why Hawke decided that deporting Djokovic was in the public interest.

His lawyers filed documents in court on Saturday that revealed Hawke had stated that "Djokovic is perceived by some as a talisman of a community of anti-vaccination sentiment."

Australia is one of the most highly vaccinated populations in the world, with 89 per cent of people aged 16 and older fully inoculated against COVID-19.

But the minister said that Djokovic's presence in Australia may be a risk to the health and "good order" of the Australian public. His presence "may be counterproductive to efforts at vaccination by others in Australia," the minister said.

The Health Department advised that Djokovic was a "low" risk of transmitting COVID-19 and a "very low" risk of transmitting the disease at the Australian Open.

The minister cited comments Djokovic made in April 2020, before a COVID-19 vaccine was available, that he was "opposed to vaccination."

Djokovic's lawyers argue that the minister had cited no evidence that Djokovic's presence in Australia may "foster anti-vaccination sentiment."

Activists rally outside Australian Open venue

Hundreds of activists held a peaceful rally outside the Melbourne Park complex that hosts the Australian Open, and planned another for Monday.

"We're at Rod Laver Arena to support Novak. He's won nine [Australian Open] titles here. Hopefully this will be No. 10 — if he can get out of quarantine and get his visa back," Harrison McLean, one of the rally organizers, said. "We're a peaceful movement, here to raise awareness and support everyone's freedom of choice."

On Saturday, Justice David O'Callaghan suggested a full bench rather than a single judge hear the case on Sunday. A full bench is three or five judges.

The decision for three judges to hear the appeal instead of a single judge elevates the importance of the case from the judiciary's perspective and means any verdict would be less likely to be appealed.

Sydney-based immigration lawyer Simon Jeans said he was surprised that Djokovic was no longer being deported because his COVID-19 infection last month did not exempt him from Australia's strict rules that foreign visitors are vaccinated unless there are sound medical reasons that they can't be.

"The unanswered question is if Djokovic was such a threat to good order, why grant him a visa" in November? Jeans asked. "This is a high-risk strategy. It's going to be much harder for the minister to convince three judges that what he did was in the public interest."

Djokovic, who has won the last three Australian Open titles, is seeking a record 21st Grand Slam singles title. He is currently tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most by a man in history.

Touching a nerve in Australia

In a post on social media Wednesday that constituted his most extensive public comments on the whole episode, Djokovic blamed his agent for checking the wrong box on the form, calling it "a human error and certainly not deliberate."

In that same post, Djokovic said he went ahead with an interview and a photo shoot with a French newspaper in Serbia despite knowing he had tested positive for COVID-19 two days earlier. Djokovic has been attempting to use what he says was a positive test taken on Dec. 16 to justify a medical exemption that would allow him to skirt the vaccine requirement.

In cancelling Djokovic's visa, Hawke said that Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government "is firmly committed to protecting Australia's borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic."

WATCH | Previewing top Canadians competing at 2022 Australian Open: 

Canadians to watch at the 2022 Australian Open

4 months ago
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CBC Sports' Vivek Jacob walks through the Canadian tennis stars you should be watching as they gear up to compete in the 2022 Australian Open

The episode has touched a nerve in Australia, and particularly in Victoria state, where locals went through more than 260 days of lockdowns during the worst of the pandemic.

Australia faces a massive surge in virus cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. On Friday, the country reported 130,000 new cases, including nearly 35,000 in Victoria state. Although many infected people aren't getting as sick as they did in previous outbreaks, the surge is still putting severe strain on the health system, with more than 4,400 people hospitalized. It's also causing disruptions to workplaces and supply chains.

Djokovic's supporters in Serbia have been dismayed by the visa cancellations. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused the Australian government of "harassing" and "maltreating" Djokovic and asked whether Morrison's government is just trying to score political points ahead of upcoming elections.

"Why didn't you return him back right away, or tell him it was impossible to get a visa?" Vucic asked the Australian authorities in a social media address. "Why are you harassing him and why are you maltreating not only him, but his family and an entire nation that is free and proud."

Everyone at the Australian Open — including players, their support teams and spectators — is required to be vaccinated for the illness caused by the coronavirus. Djokovic is not inoculated and had sought a medical exemption on the grounds that he had COVID-19 in December.

According to Grand Slam rules, if Djokovic is forced to pull out of the tournament before the order of play for Day 1 is announced, No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev would move into Djokovic's spot in the bracket and face Miomir Kecmanovic.

If Djokovic withdraws from the tournament after Monday's schedule is released, he would be replaced in the field by what's known as a "lucky loser" — a player who loses in the qualifying tournament but gets into the main draw because of another player's exit before competition has started.

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