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Top-ranked Novak Djokovic spends religious day in detention

Regardless of who made an error on the visa or the vaccination waiver or whatever, the reality Friday for tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic was spending one of his important religious holidays in an Australian detention hotel working on his challenge against deportation.

Djokovic has been receiving calls from Serbia, including from his parents and the president, hoping to boost his spirits. A priest from the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Melbourne sought permission from immigration authorities to visit the nine-time Australian Open champion to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas.

“Our Christmas is rich in many customs and it is so important that a priest visits him,” the church's dean, Milorad Locard, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "The whole thing around this event is appalling. That he has to spend Christmas in detention ... it is unthinkable.”

The evidence that Djokovic was relying on to support a medical exemption to Australia's strict COVID-19 vaccination policy was rejected by Australian border authorities when he arrived at the Melbourne airport late Wednesday, and his visa was canceled. He has been confined to the detention hotel since being moved from the airport.

The Australian Border Force confirmed late Friday that after further investigations into the visa status of two other people connected to the Australian Open, one voluntarily departed the country and another was taken into immigration detention pending deportation. The ABF said it would make no further comment on either person.

The embassy for the Czech Republic in Canberra identified 38-year-old doubles player Renata Voráčová as one of the people.

“Renata Voráčová has decided to leave Australia at the earliest possible time and won’t participate in the tournament in Melbourne,” the Czech embassy said.

During the day, Djokovic's supporters gathered outside the Park Hotel, used to house refugees and asylum seekers near downtown Melbourne, waving flags and banners.

They mixed with human rights advocates who were there more to highlight the plight of other longer-term people in detention, many who have long complained about their living conditions and exposure to the coronavirus in the pandemic.

A day after both the prime minister and the home affairs minister said it was the responsibility of each traveler to have their visa documents in order, it seemed to dawn on people locally that whatever mistakes happened in the process, one of the highest-profile athletes in the world was in detention.

Djokovic flew to Australia confident he had everything he needed to compete. He had been approved by the Victoria state government for a medical exemption to the tournament's vaccination rules based on the details he supplied to an independent panel of medical experts, and as per Tennis Australia guidelines.

But that same evidence didn't comply with the Australian government's regulations.

So, instead of preparing to defend his Australian Open title, and bid to win a men's-record 21st major title, he's preparing to go to the Federal Circuit Court on Monday to challenge his visa cancellation and deportation. That's a week before the season-opening major starts.

Attention is moving away from Djokovic’s vaccination status — a touchy topic in a city where residents spent 256 days across 2020 and '21 under severe restrictions on movements and gatherings — and onto questions about how the nine-time Australian Open champion could have wound up in this situation.

Even some who have been critical of Djokovic in the past are now seemingly in his corner.

“Look, I definitely believe in taking action, I got vaccinated because of others and for my mums health, but how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad,” Nick Kyrgios, an Australian player and outspoken critic of some of Djokovic’s opinions on vaccinations, posted on Twitter. “This is one of our great champions but at the end of the day, he is human. Do better.”

Critics of the medical exemptions have said if there were no loopholes, then nobody would be in Djokovic's position right now. And while players have sympathized with Djokovic's situation, some have said getting vaccinated would have prevented any drama.

Djokovic has been a vaccine skeptic, and has declined to acknowledge if he's had shots for COVID-19, but there can't be any doubt he traveled to Australia believing his paperwork was all in order.

Australia’s strict COVID-19 laws dictate that incoming travelers must have had two shots of an approved vaccine, or must have an exemption with a genuine medical reason, such as an acute condition, to avoid quarantine.

Tennis Australia said Djokovic’s request for an exemption had been “granted following a rigorous review process.” Neither Tennis Australia nor Djokovic revealed the reason he sought an exemption.

After the news broke of the visa cancellation, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley defended the “completely legitimate application and process” and insisted there was no special treatment for Djokovic.

He said only 26 people connected with the tournament applied for a medical exemption — to avoid the rule that all players, staff, officials and fans needed to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to enter Melbourne Park — and only a “handful” were granted. None, except Djokovic, who posted it himself on social media before he flew to Australia, were publicly identified. Now three of them are either in detention or have left.

Tiley hasn't commented officially since then.

AP
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