Novak Djokovic wins court battle linked to COVID vaccine exemption, but saga not over

Novak Djokovic returned to the tennis court Monday for training, having won a legal battle to play in the Australian Open after his exemption from strict COVID-19 rules was questioned. But the government is still threatening to cancel his visa and deport him.

Judge restores tennis star's visa, orders him released from Melbourne hotel quarantine

An Australian Circuit Court judge has ordered tennis star Novak Djokovic to be released from a Melbourne hotel quarantine. Djokovic has been under guard since Thursday, when his visa was cancelled due to a rule that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated. He had applied for and received an exemption. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic returned to the tennis court Monday for training, having won a legal battle to stay in Australia and play in the Australian Open after his exemption from strict coronavirus rules was questioned. But the government is still threatening to cancel his visa and deport him.

Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly reinstated Djokovic's visa, which was pulled after his arrival last week because officials said he didn't qualify for an exemption to a rule that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated. Djokovic's lawyers say since he recently recovered from COVID-19, he didn't need to be inoculated.

The judge ruled the No. 1 player had not been given enough time to speak to his lawyers before the decision was made and ordered the government to release him from a Melbourne quarantine hotel where he has spent the last four nights.

But government lawyer Christopher Tran told the judge the immigration minister "will consider whether to exercise a personal power of cancellation."

WATCH | Court permits Djokovic to stay in Australia for time being:

Novak Djokovic allowed to stay in Australia for now

4 months ago
Duration 1:56
A judge has cleared Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic to stay in Australia ahead of the upcoming Australian Open, but the country’s immigration minister could still step in and revoke his visa.

That would mean the nine-time Australian Open winner and defending champion could again face deportation and miss the tournament, which starts on Jan. 17. It could also bar him from the country for three years.

Late Monday night, Djokovic tweeted out a photo that showed him and his team standing on one of the main show courts of the tournament. He was already back to training, his brother told reporters in Serbia.

"I'm pleased and grateful that the Judge overturned my visa cancellation. Despite all that has happened, I want to stay and try to compete at the Australian Open," Djokovic said in the post.

WATCH | Australia denies Djokovic entry because of controversial vaccine exemption:

Novak Djokovic denied entry to Australia after vaccine exemption

5 months ago
Duration 2:01
Australian border officials have denied tennis star Novak Djokovic entry to the country after he received a controversial medical exemption to COVID-19 vaccination requirements to play in the upcoming Australian Open.

The back and forth has gripped the world and caused a furor in Australia, where many initially decried the news that Djokovic, who has been a vocal skeptic of vaccines, had received an exemption to the country's strict COVID-19 rules to compete in Melbourne. Many felt the star, who court documents say is not vaccinated, was being given special treatment.

Australians who aren't vaccinated face tough travel and quarantine restrictions. Melbourne, in particular, has faced severe restrictions and is one of the world's most locked-down cities.

Nadal backs rival

But when border police blocked the 34-year-old on arrival, others cried foul, saying he was being scapegoated by an Australian government facing criticism for its recent handling of the pandemic.

The tennis star's brother, Djordje Djokovic, told television network Prva in Belgrade, Serbia: "This is definitely politics, all this was politics."

Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal called the controversy "a circus" and said he supported the decision allowing his rival to play in Melbourne.

"Beyond me agreeing or not with Djokovic on certain things, there's no question that justice has spoken and has said that he has the right to take part in the Australian Open," Nadal said Monday during an interview with Spain's Onda Cero radio.

Djokovic's fans react to news of his overturned ruling outside court on Monday, ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne. (Hamish Blair/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government is seeking re-election for a fourth term in polls due by May.

While Morrison's government was widely praised for containing Australia's COVID-19 death toll at the start of the pandemic, he has recently loosened some rules, just as Omicron cases have been rapidly surging. He has been criticized for that strategy, as well as for shortages of rapid antigen tests and for refusing to make the tests available to all for free.

At Monday's hearing, Djokovic's lawyers argued their client did not need proof of vaccination because he had evidence that he had been infected with the coronavirus last month.

Australian medical authorities have ruled that people who have been infected with COVID-19 within six months can receive a temporary exemption to the vaccination rule.

Cancellation 'seriously illogical,' lawyers say

Judge Kelly noted Djokovic had provided officials at Melbourne's airport with a medical exemption given him by Tennis Australia and two medical panels.

"The point I'm somewhat agitated about is what more could this man have done?" Kelly asked Djokovic's lawyer, Nick Wood.

Wood agreed his client could not have done more, noting transcripts of Djokovic's interview with Australian Border Force officials and his own affidavit revealed he repeatedly told officers he had done everything he thought was required of him.

Djokovic's lawyers described the cancellation as "seriously illogical."

But lawyers for Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said in their submission the vaccination exemption could only be granted for travellers who had recovered from a serious bout of COVID-19.

"There is no suggestion that the applicant [Djokovic] had 'acute major medical illness' in December," when he tested positive, the written submission said.

In the end, the government lawyers eventually conceded that the decision to proceed with interviewing Djokovic in the early hours of Thursday and cancel his visa before he could contact Tennis Australia or his lawyers was unreasonable.

Player's family declares victory

Djokovic was told at 5:20 a.m. on Thursday that he had until 8:30 a.m. to respond to a notice of intention to cancel his visa. His comments were sought instead at 6:14 a.m.

The decision to cancel his visa was made just over an hour later.

Andrews did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a spokesperson for Alex Hawke, the minister for immigration, citizenship, migrant services and multicultural affairs, acknowledged the court's decision, adding the minister's personal discretion remains in play.

"The minister is currently considering the matter and the process remains ongoing," the spokesperson said.

Still, at a news conference in Belgrade, Djokovic's family declared victory.

"This is his greatest victory, greater than all the Grand Slams that he has won," his mother, Dijana Djokovic, said.

WATCH | Djokovic family ready to fight for him:

Tennis star Novak Djokovic's family speaks out after legal victory

4 months ago
Duration 2:18
The family of tennis star Novak Djokovic said they are ready to fight for him 'in every possible manner' just hours after he won a court challenge allowing him to remain in Australia. A judge ruled the federal government's decision last week to cancel Djokovic's visa because he is unvaccinated was unreasonable.

The virtual hearing crashed several times because of an overwhelming number of people from around the world trying to watch the proceedings.

At one point, an expired court link was apparently hacked and broadcast pornography, The New Daily News website reported.

Djokovic has 20 Grand Slam singles titles, a men's record he shares with Roger Federer and Nadal.

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