Australia said Thursday, Jan. 6 it had cancelled the entry visa of Novak Djokovic, opening the way to his detention and deportation in a dramatic reversal for the tennis world number one.
The Serb had landed in Melbourne the previous evening, after celebrating on social media that he had a medical exemption to play in the tournament without proof he was fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The vaccine exemption, granted by the Australian Open organizers after his application had been cleared by two medical panels, sparked fury among Australians who have endured COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions for two years.
But the nine-time Australian Open champion never got past border control.
"Mr. Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled," the Australian Border Force said in a statement.
"Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia," it added.
The player was held at the airport overnight, but was moved, along with his team, early on Thursday.
It is unclear if he will depart Australia later in the day or stay in hotel quarantine or government accommodation during a possible legal fight against deportation.
Several local media including The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald said Djokovic's lawyers would attempt to overturn the decision.
Serbia's president blasted Australia for the "maltreatment" of its star.
'Justice and truth'
President Aleksandar Vucic said on Instagram he spoke with Djokovic over the phone and told him that "the whole of Serbia is with him and that our authorities are undertaking all measures in order that maltreatment of the world's best tennis player ends as soon as possible".
"In line with all standards of international public law, Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic, justice and truth."
Djokovic's father called for his son to receive a hero's welcome on his return.
"Our pride, our Novak is returning... We should all welcome him as deserved!" Srdjan Djokovic said on Instagram.
He said his son had been "held captive for five hours" at Melbourne airport.
"This is a fight for a libertarian world, this is not just a fight for Novak, but a fight for the whole world," he told Sputnik's Serbia media outlet.
But Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country's strict border policies had been critical to keeping death rates low.
"Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders," he said.
"No one is above these rules."
Morrison had warned the previous day that if Djokovic did not have the evidence for his exemption he "will be on the next plane home."
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the government made "no apologies" for protecting the border.
"Individuals who do not meet our strict requirements will be denied entry to Australia, it does not matter who they are," she said in a statement.
The Australian government's decision followed a wave of anger over the granting of Djokovic's exemption.
'No special favor'
Stephen Parnis, a former Australian Medical Association vice-president, said the exemption sent an "appalling message" to people trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.
All participants at the first Grand Slam of 2022, which starts on Jan. 17, must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have a medical exemption, which is granted only after assessment by two panels of independent experts.
Tournament chief Craig Tiley said the defending champion had been given "no special favor" but had urged him to reveal why he got the exemption to soothe public anger.
Among the conditions allowing entry without a vaccine is if a person has had COVID-19 in the past six months. It has not been revealed if that was the case with Djokovic.
Tiley said just 26 of the approximately 3,000 players and support staff travelling to Australia for the tournament had applied for a vaccine exemption. Only a handful of those had been successful.
He defended the integrity of the exemption application process.
"Any person who met those conditions has been allowed to come in. There's been no special favor. There's been no special opportunity granted to Novak," Tiley said.
Djokovic voiced his opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine in April 2020 when it was suggested they might be obligatory so tournament play could resume.
"Personally I am not pro-vaccines," said Djokovic at the time. "I would not like it for someone to compel me to be vaccinated so I can travel."
During Djokovic's questioning at the airport, his coach Goran Ivanisevic posted a photograph on Instagram of himself and the Serb's other backroom staff, patiently waiting at Melbourne airport for a resolution.
"Not the most usual trip Down Under," wrote the former Wimbledon champion. (AFP)