BRISBANE, Australia (AP) – The prospect of Novak Djokovic seeking a 10th Australian Open title this year was left in limbo early Thursday when border authorities denied him entry and canceled his visa.
The authorities took the measure considering that the Serbian star failed to comply with the requirements to obtain a medical exemption that would allow him to enter the country without demonstrating that he had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Djokovic, the world number one, landed in Australia on Wednesday night after receiving a medical exemption from the Victorian state government.
That safe-conduct relieved him of the harsh vaccination requirements that have been put in place for the Australian Open, the first major of the year, which begins on January 17.
However, the border authorities did not accept the exemption. The Australian Border Force issued a statement in which it indicated that Djokovic had not met the entry requirements.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the visa cancellation followed a review of Djokovic’s documents by border officials, who analyzed “the integrity and evidence behind” the waiver.
The Serbian president criticized the treatment of his compatriot, who was detained overnight at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.
Djokovic, a 20-time champion of Grand Slam tournaments, had to wait for more than eight hours at the air terminal to find out if he would be admitted to the oceanic country.
Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia, said that no one is above the rules.
“Mr. Djokovic’s visa has been canceled. Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders, ”Morrison wrote on Twitter. “Nobody is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been crucial to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID. We will remain vigilant ”.
Hunt said Djokovic was within his right to appeal the decision.
“But if a visa is canceled, the person has to leave the country,” he warned.
Australian media reported that Djokovic’s team had applied for the wrong type of visa for a person with medical exemption.
With the exemption, Djokovic expected to play the Australian Open, regardless of his COVID-19 vaccination status. In the past, the athlete had spoken out against vaccines, and then he has refused to acknowledge if he received any inoculation against the coronavirus.
Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, told the B92 website that his son was held “in a room where no one else could enter” at the airport, under the surveillance of two policemen.
Djokovic’s participation in the Australian Open had become a hot political issue. Many Australians were furious at the granting of the exemption for the athlete to enter the country.
Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Instagram that he had spoken with Djokovic while he was being held at the airport. He added that the Serbian authorities were taking measures “so that the harassment against the best tennis player in the world would stop shortly.”
Conjecture about the Serbian tennis player’s visa issues emerged while he was still in transit and escalated with conflicting messages from federal and state lawmakers.
Djokovic’s social media revelation that he would go to the Australian Open in search of his 21st major – a record – sparked debate and headlines on Wednesday.
Many critics asked on what basis the exemption was granted. For their part, Djokovic’s followers emphasized that he had the right to privacy and to make his own decisions.
Australian Open director Craig Tiley defended the “completely legitimate application and process” and insisted there was no special treatment for Djokovic.
The Victoria state government made it possible for only fully vaccinated players, employees, fans and managers to enter Melbourne Park from 17 January.
Only 26 people related to the Grand Slam event applied for an exemption, and added Tiley, who said it was only granted to a “handful.”
Reasons the exemption could be granted included acute medical conditions, a serious adverse reaction to a previous dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, or a coronavirus infection within the past six months.
Djokovic tested positive for coronavirus in June 2020, after playing a series of exhibition matches that he himself organized in Serbia and Croatia, without social distancing amid the pandemic.
Concerns about Djokovic’s visa were slow to arise.
At first, Morrison said that the decision to grant the medical exemption was a matter for the government of Victoria, the state of which Melbourne is the capital.
“They have granted a waiver for him to come to Australia, and we act in response to that,” Morrison said. “States give waivers for people to enter on that basis, and that has been happening for the last two years.”
Karen Andrews, minister of internal affairs, later clarified the border process.
“Although the government of Victoria and Tennis Australia may allow an unvaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth government that enforces our requirements at the Australian border,” Andrews said. “If an arriving individual is not vaccinated, they must provide acceptable proof that they cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons in order to have the same treatment on their travels as those who are fully vaccinated.”
When asked again about the Djokovic case, Morrison added: “If that evidence is insufficient, he will not be treated differently from the others, and he will have to board the next plane back.”
AP journalist Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade.