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Djokovic in limbo as he fights deportation from Australia

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Tennis star Novak Djokovic spent a day confined to a hotel room waiting for a court to deal with the confronting prospect of a possible deportation from Australia.

The 20-time Grand Slam singles winner will spend at least another night there, in immigration detention, as he fights against the deportation move.

With his entry denied and his visa canceled by Australian Border Force officials who rejected his evidence to support a medical exemption for the country's strict COVID-19 vaccination rules, Djokovic had to trade the practice courts for the courts of law on Thursday.

The nine-time champion's chance of playing in the Australian Open starting Jan. 17 remains in limbo.

Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly said there was a delay in receiving the application for a review of the visa decisions and the temporary ban on Djokovic’s deportation. A lawyer for the government agreed the 34-year-old Djokovic should not be deported until Friday at the earliest, while the hearing was adjourned until Monday.

Djokovic’s trip was contentious well before he landed, with the conservative federal government and the left-leaning state government of Victoria seemingly having conflicting views over what constituted acceptable medical grounds for an exemption to Australia’s vaccination policy for foreign travelers.

Djokovic announced on social media Tuesday that he had “exemption permission” and he landed in Melbourne late Wednesday with a medical exemption from Victoria state that was expected to shield him from the vaccination regulations in place for the Australian Open.

That would have been okay to enter the tournament, but apparently not the country.

After a long-haul flight, he spent the night trying to convince border authorities he had all the necessary documentation, but the Australian Border Force issued an early morning statement saying Djokovic failed to meet entry requirements.

“The rule is very clear,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a news conference. “You need to have a medical exemption. He didn’t have a valid medical exemption. We make the call at the border, and that’s where it’s enforced.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the visa cancellation followed a review of Djokovic’s medical exemption by border officials who looked “at the integrity and the evidence behind it.”

The president of Djokovic’s native Serbia blasted the “harassment” of the star. Djokovic was transferred Thursday morning to a secure hotel which is controlled by immigration officials and has previously housed asylum seekers and refugees. Supporters draped in Serbian flags gathered outside during the afternoon in a show of support.

In the meantime, Djokovic’s lawyers launched the legal action which has delayed, at least temporarily, his deportation.

Quarantine-free access wouldn’t have been an issue if Djokovic could show he was fully vaccinated for the coronavirus. Instead he applied for the exemption, a route that only became an option in recent months after Victoria state backed away from a full no-vaccination, no-play policy.

Questions have now been raised about the approval of the exemption.

The Sydney Morning Herald published letters sent in November from the Department of Health and the health minister to Tennis Australia which indicated that Djokovic didn’t meet the standard — as defined by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation — for quarantine-free entry.

Asked about the confusion, Morrison said the onus was on the individual traveler to have correct documentation on arrival.

The prime minister rejected the suggestion that Djokovic was being singled out, but he acknowledged that other players may be in Australia on the same type of medical exemption.

“One of the things the Border Force does is they act on intelligence to direct their attention to potential arrivals,” he said. “When you get people making public statements about what they say they have, and they’re going to do, they draw significant attention to themselves.”

Anyone who does that, he said, “whether they’re a celebrity, a politician, a tennis player . . . they can expect to be asked questions more than others before you come.”

The medical exemptions, vetted by two independent panels of experts and based on information supplied anonymously by players — and taken on face value — had been designed to allow Djokovic to play in the Australian Open regardless of his vaccination status.

He has spoken out against vaccines in the past and has steadfastly refused to acknowledge whether he received any shots against the coronavirus.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Instagram that he spoke to Djokovic while he was being held at the airport. He said Serbian authorities were taking measures “so the harassment of the best tennis player in the world be stopped in the shortest possible time.”

Djokovic’s initial social media revelation that he was heading to Australia became a hot political topic this week. Many Australians who have struggled to obtain sparsely available and often expensive rapid antigen tests, or who have been forced into isolation, perceived a double standard.

Critics questioned what grounds Djokovic could have for the exemption, and backers argued that he has a right to privacy and freedom of choice.

Tension has grown amid another surge of COVID-19. The state recorded six deaths and 21,997 new cases on Thursday, the biggest daily jump in cases in Victoria since the pandemic began.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley on Wednesday defended the “completely legitimate application and process” and insisted there was no special treatment for Djokovic.

The Victoria government mandated that only fully vaccinated players, staff members, fans and officials can enter Melbourne Park when the Australian Open begins Jan. 17.

Only 26 people connected with the tournament applied for a medical exemption and, Tiley said, only a “handful” were granted. None of those players have been publicly identified.

Among the acceptable reasons for an exemption are acute major medical conditions, serious adverse reaction to a previous dose of COVID-19 vaccine or evidence of a COVID-19 infection within the previous six months.

Djokovic tested positive for the coronavirus in June 2020 after he played in a series of exhibition matches that he organized without social distancing amid the pandemic.

Concerns about the visa status initially heightened Wednesday when Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said while the state government and tennis organizers “may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border,.”

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