- The fate of Djokovic is in the hands of the Australian government
- Stranded in an isolated room at the airport due to a visa issue
- Serbian president says his country is behind him
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic was left stranded at a Melbourne airport overnight, as he was caught in an international political maelstrom over whether Australia would honor the world’s first medical exemption from vaccine requirements or repatriate him over a visa error.
Djokovic, who is chasing his 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open, landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport on Wednesday around 11:30 p.m. local time after a 14-hour flight from Dubai.
But he was still waiting for permission early Thursday morning to enter the country after it emerged that his team had applied for a visa that did not allow for medical exemptions.
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This prompted the local government of Victoria, the state in which the Open is being held, to say it would not support Djokovic’s request, putting his fate in the hands of the federal government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The extraordinary move by the Australian government to prevent Djokovic from entering the country due to an error in his visa form threatened to cause a diplomatic incident between Canberra and Belgrade.
“I just finished my phone conversation with Novak Djokovic,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic posted on Instagram. “I told Novak that all of Serbia is with him and our bodies are doing their best to see that the harassment of the best tennis player in the world will be ended immediately.
“In line with all rules of international law, Serbia will fight for Novak, truth and justice. Novak is strong, as we all know.”
Serbian media reported that Vucic summoned the Australian ambassador in Belgrade and demanded that they immediately release Djokovic for playing.
Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, said his son was waiting alone in a room at the airport under armed guard to make a final decision on whether he could enter the country.
“I have no idea what’s going on, they have kept my son in captivity for five hours now,” Srdjan told the Serbian online version of Sputnik. “If they don’t let him go in half an hour, we’ll gather in the streets, it’s a battle for everyone.”
“Not the usual flight from Down Under,” coach Goran Ivanisevic commented beside an Instagram selfie from the airport lounge, accompanied by a disturbing emoji.
Morrison faced a backlash over his government’s decision to grant Djokovic a medical exemption from vaccination to play in the World Open, which led to finger-pointing between the prime minister’s conservative administration and the left-leaning Victorian government led by Prime Minister Dan Andrews.
Australia, and in particular the state of Victoria, has experienced the world’s longest cumulative lockdown, and the outbreak of the Omicron variant has sent case numbers to record levels. Read more
Following the backlash, Morrison indicated that Djokovic’s participation was not a done deal and that he would have to satisfy the federal government, which has international border and visa responsibility and was not part of the waiver process. Read more
Shortly before Djokovic’s arrival, Morrison said there would be no “special rules” for him about being excused.
“If this evidence is insufficient, he will not be treated differently than anyone else and will be on the next flight home,” Morrison told an earlier news conference.
Djokovic came on an Emirates flight, but when border officials contacted the Victorian government to ask if the country would officially support the world’s number one visa, she said it would not.
“The federal government has asked whether we would support Novak Djokovic’s visa application to enter Australia,” said Gala Polford, Victoria’s acting sports minister.
“We will not provide individual visa application support for Novak Djokovic to participate in the 2022 Australian Open.
“We’ve always been clear on two points: visa approval is a matter for the federal government, and medical waivers are a matter for doctors.”
It was not clear if the federal government would allow him to enter. The Border Force did not respond to a request for comment.
Australian tennis officials and the government moved quickly to confirm that Djokovic did not receive any preferential treatment.
The Serbian, who previously refused to reveal his vaccination status, has won nine Melbourne Park titles including the last three. He confirmed on Tuesday that he had been given a vaccination exemption to allow him to play in the Australian Open, which begins on January 17.
Australian tennis star Rod Laver, whose main parade ground has been named in Melbourne Park in Victoria, has warned that Djokovic could face hostility from the local crowd.
“I think it could get ugly,” Laver told News Corp. “I think the Victorian people would think ‘Yeah, I’d like to see him play and compete, but at the same time there is a right and wrong way.’
“Yeah, you’re a great player and I’ve played and won a lot of tournaments, so it can’t be physical. So what’s the problem?”
That was a “disgrace”, said Kristen Wharton, from Melbourne.
“We all did the right thing, we all went out and got our punches and our boosters, we have someone who came in from outside and suddenly he was relieved and could play, I think it’s an absolute disgrace and I won’t watch it.”
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(Reporting by Sudiptu Ganguly in Mumbai). Co-reporting by Nick Mulvaney and John Mayer; Editing by Peter Rutherford, Allison Williams and Hugh Lawson
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