Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia on Sunday after losing a sensational legal battle over his coronavirus vaccination status and his dream of shattering a record 21st Grand Slam. An “extremely disappointed” Djokovic said he would abide by a unanimous federal court decision to uphold his visa cancellation because he feared he could fuel anti-vaccine sentiment. “I can’t stay in Australia and compete in the Australian Open,” he said on the eve of a tournament he has dominated for ten years.
“I hope now we can all focus on the game and the tournament that I love.”
An AFP reporter captured footage of Djokovic at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport late Sunday as the humble star boarded a flight to Dubai.
EK409 departed at 22:51 local time (1151 GMT).
Hours earlier, in a few dry words, the Chief Justice of the Australian Federal Court, James Allsop, called off the unvaccinated tennis superstar’s attempt to reinstate his canceled visa and make tennis history.
“The court orders are that the amended application with costs be dismissed,” Allsop said in subdued comments that ended a week of legal high drama.
Three federal court judges had listened to half a day of grueling legal back and forth about Djokovic’s alleged risk to public order in Australia.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke claimed Djokovic’s stance could spark anti-vaccine sentiment, forcing some people to face the pandemic without vaccination and inspiring anti-vaxxer activists to gather for protests and rallies.
Welcoming Sunday’s verdict, Hawke said: “Australia’s strong border protection policies have kept us safe during the pandemic.”
“(They) are also fundamental to protecting Australia’s social cohesion,” he said.
The player’s powerful legal team tried but failed to portray Australia’s attempt to deport him as “irrational” and “unreasonable”.
Despite the star not being vaccinated, attorney Nick Wood insisted his client had not sought anti-vaxxer support and was not associated with the movement.
The government “doesn’t know what Mr Djokovic’s current views are,” Wood insisted.
The court did not approve the government’s decision, but ruled that the action was legal under rules that give the minister exceptional and almost indisputable executive power.
– Anti-vaccination ‘icon’ –
The defending champion and first seed of the Australian Open would play against compatriot Miomir Kecmanovic on Monday evening.
But Djokovic has spent much of the past week in immigration detention, with his visa being revoked twice by the government over his refusal to receive a Covid-19 vaccine before arrival – a requirement for most visitors.
Government lawyer Stephen Lloyd said the fact that Djokovic had not been vaccinated two years after the pandemic and had repeatedly ignored safety measures – including not isolating while Covid-19 was positive – was sufficient evidence of his anti-vaccination views.
“He has now become an icon for the anti-vaccination groups,” said Lloyd. “Rightly or wrongly, he is seen as a proponent of an anti-vaccine stance and his presence here would contribute to that.”
In a written response, the government also pointed out that Djokovic chose not to testify at the hearing.
“He could set the record straight if it had to be corrected. He hasn’t – that has important consequences.”
Due to the size of the court, it would have been nearly impossible to appeal the judges’ decision.
The Scott Morrison government had tried to remove Djokovic before, but not because he had not been vaccinated and because a recent Covid infection was not sufficient for a medical exemption.
A lower court ruled that officials at Melbourne airport made procedural errors in canceling his visa.
Djokovic was free for a few days to train – before a second visa was revoked and he returned to an infamous immigration detention facility in Melbourne.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic lashed out at the Australian authorities.
“They think they have humiliated Djokovic by this 10-day beating, but they have humiliated themselves. Djokovic can return to his country with his head held high,” Vucic told a state media.
Vucic has remained steadfast in his support of Djokovic throughout the drama, calling the tennis star’s previous detention a “political witch hunt”.
“I spoke to Novak Djokovic before after the decision and I encouraged him. We look forward to seeing him back to his country, where he is always welcome,” the president added.
– ‘With or without him’ –
Many Australians – who have faced lengthy lockdowns and border restrictions – believe the player used the system to evade vaccine entry requirements.
The case has been seized upon by culture warriors in the ferocious debate over vaccines and how to handle the pandemic.
The tennis ace contracted Covid-19 in mid-December – allowing the medical exemption – and, according to his own account, failed to isolate despite knowing he was positive.
Public records show that he attended a stamp unveiling and youth tennis event, as well as providing a media interview around the time he was tested and his latest infection was confirmed.
Djokovic is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 Grand Slam titles each.
Spanish great Nadal took a swipe at his rival on Saturday as players complained that the scandal overshadowed the opening Grand Slam of the year.
“The Australian Open is far more important than any player,” Nadal told reporters at Melbourne Park.
“The Australian Open will be a great Australian Open, with or without him.”
Topics mentioned in this article