When Novak Djokovic announced earlier this week that he was playing in the Australian Open with a vaccine exemption, it set off a furious reaction in Australia.
Days later, the world’s number one male player has found himself sitting in an Australian quarantine hotel room awaiting possible deportation.
What was meant to be the triumphant start of a new year of tennis glory for Djokovic has now escalated into a diplomatic storm. This is how it happened.
How was Djokovic allowed to enter Australia?
News that Djokovic had been approved to play in the Australian Open, beginning 17 January, was first revealed by the player himself on Tuesday on social media.
Australia requires all foreign visitors entering the country to be double vaccinated. Otherwise, they need to complete 14 days in quarantine.
But Djokovic, who is not believed to be vaccinated, said he had gained a medical exemption to enter the country and play in the Grand Slam.
Tennis Australia – the sporting body which runs the Australian Open – confirmed the top seed had gained the medical exemption under its policy, which allows players with a legitimate vaccine exemption to participate.
The policy was announced in December with the endorsement of the Victorian state government.
Two separate medical panels assess the claims from players – which are anonymised to prevent bias. Valid reasons for exemptions include inflammatory cardiac illness or another acute condition, or having contracted Covid in the past six months.
Officials said in total, 26 athletes had applied for the exemptions and “a handful” of them including Djokovic had been successful.
What was Australia’s reaction?
Not good. There was immediate public anger among Australians.
The player has previously expressed anti-vaccination sentiments. In the first year of the pandemic, he staged a commercial tennis tour where he and other tennis players contracted Covid.
Meanwhile, in Australia, locals have lived through months of lockdown and restrictions. Most followed government urgings to get vaccinated – over 90% of the adult population is double-dosed.
The country is also in the depths of its worst Covid wave yet – reporting over 70,000 new cases on Thursday – which is placing immense strain on the health system and businesses.
Initially, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he accepted the exemption granted to Djokovic by Victoria’s state government.
On Tuesday, he had said that federal authorities – who control the borders – would “act in accordance” with the state’s decision as “that’s how it works. States provide exemptions for people to enter… that’s been happening for the last two years”.
But then the next day he backflipped, and said that federal officials would send Djokovic home if he failed to provide evidence of his vaccination that would satisfy Australia’s standards.
Why was Djokovic turned away at the airport?
On Wednesday night about 23:30 local time (12:30 GMT), Djokovic landed in Australia at Melbourne Airport, where he was promptly assessed and turned away. His visa was cancelled on the spot.
The tennis player had failed to provide evidence he was double vaccinated, or had a legitimate exemption to that, Mr Morrison explained at a press conference the following morning.
“He was unable to furnish that proof to Border Force officers at the airport last night and they are the rules and it happens on many occasions and that is what has now happened,” he said.
Australian media reported the rest of Djokovic’s team was allowed to enter Australia because their vaccination status was approved.
Djokovic was taken away by Australian Border Force officials to an immigration holding hotel, where he is now awaiting a further decision on his fate.
It’s clear that in this case the Australian federal authorities have stepped up to assert their authority in this situation, which supersedes decisions made by Tennis Australia that are endorsed by state officials.
Mr Morrison said the Australian Border Force had sent letters to Tennis Australia back in November outlining federal expectations of vaccinated entry. He said a recent Covid infection or one in the past six months was also not an accepted entry condition under federal standards.
He also said it wasn’t uncommon for people be turned away upon landing in Australia, because the assessment of visas by Australian officials takes place upon visitors’ arrival on the ground.
But one former border force commissioner wrote that the blame couldn’t be placed on the state authorities alone, as federal officers would have signed off on the basic granting of a visa.
And as Mr Morrison noted himself on Tuesday, people have been granted entry into Australia during the pandemic, largely through the discretion and approval of state authorities.
That’s all led to speculation by most political observers that Djokovic’s ban is largely politically motivated.
Mr Morrison is facing an election in a few months time. He has been under intense criticism due to the rapid Omicron spread in the country, and Djokovic was an easy scapegoat, commentators say.
Where does this leave Djokovic?
Djokovic’s camp is furious about the sudden about-turn, and say he’s being made an example of – particularly when there are three other unknown tennis players with exemptions who have been let into the country, Australian media report.
Djokovic launched an appeal of the visa decision immediately after he was held back. His team are firstly seeking a court injunction on the matter, to presumably keep the player in Australia.
Alternatively, he may be flown out later today to another country, from where he could argue his appeal from there, or reapply for entry into the tournament.
Meanwhile Serbia has rallied round the tennis player, with President Aleksander Vucic accusing Australian authorities of “harassing” Djokovic.
Source: Frances Mao