Novak Djokovic’s lawyers filed court papers on Saturday in his challenge against deportation from Australia that show the tennis star tested positive for Covid-19 last month and recovered, grounds he used in applying for a medical exemption to the country’s strict vaccination rules.
The top-ranked Djokovic was denied entry at the Melbourne airport late on Wednesday after border officials cancelled his visa for failing to meet its entry requirement that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated for Covid-19.
Djokovic was given a medical exemption backed by the Victoria state government and Australian Open organisers on Jan 1, based on information he supplied to two independent medical panels, and he was approved for a visa electronically.
But it has since emerged that the Victoria state medical exemption, allowed for people who tested positive for the coronavirus within the last six months, was deemed invalid by the federal border authorities.
Djokovic has been confined to an immigration detention hotel in Melbourne, where he’s been preparing for the legal challenge against his visa cancellation in the Federal Circuit Court on Monday.
The Australian Open starts Jan 17. Djokovic is the defending champion and has won the Australian Open men’s singles title nine times. He has 20 Grand Slam singles title, a men’s record he shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. and the Australian Associated Press reported details of the documents late on Saturday. It showed Djokovic received a letter from Tennis Australia’s chief medical officer on Dec 30 that he had been provided with a medical exemption from Covid vaccination on the grounds that he had recently recovered from Covid.
The exemption certification said the date of the 34-year-old Serb’s first positive test was Dec 16, and that he had not had a fever or respiratory symptoms in the past 72 hours.
Djokovic attended a Dec 17 event in Belgrade honouring young tennis players. The event was covered by local media, and parents posted photos on social media showing Djokovic and the children not wearing masks. It’s not clear if Djokovic knew the results of his test at the time.
On Dec 14, Djokovic had attended a Euroleague basketball game between Red Star and Barcelona in a packed sports hall in Belgrade. He was photographed hugging several players of both teams, including some who soon later tested positive.
The court submission on Saturday said Djokovic received confirmation from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs saying that his travel declaration had been assessed and that his responses indicated he met the requirements for quarantine-free arrival in Australia.
The federal court has ordered Home Affairs to file its response by Sunday.
Djokovic’s court filing confirmed a media report that he had asked to be moved to lodgings with access to a tennis court but that his request was denied. The Park Hotel, where he is staying, is also home to dozens of asylum seekers trying to enter the country.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the player had been provided with gluten-free food, tools to exercise and a sim card.
“He’s staying in Park Hotel until the final decision is made,” Brnabic told Serbian media. “We’ve managed to make sure gluten-free food is delivered to him, as well as exercising tools, a laptop and a sim card so that he is able to be in contact with his family.
“It’s a positive tone from the Australian side. The Serbian government is ready to provide all the guarantees necessary for Novak to be allowed to enter Australia, the Serbian president [Aleksandar Vucic] is also involved.”
Djokovic’s filing said he had expressed “shock, “surprise” and “confusion” when he was held overnight, and had a bed prepared near his airport interview room so he could rest while waiting until the morning when he would be able to reach legal representatives and Tennis Australia, the filing says.
Customs officers ultimately “pressured” Djokovic to undertake an interview before he had spoken to either, the filing said.
Tennis Australia said it never knowingly misled players and had always urged players to be vaccinated, after News Corp papers published a document from the organising body apparently advising players on ways to enter the country with a medical exemption from vaccination.
“We have always been consistent in our communications to players that vaccination is the best course of action — not just as the right thing to do to protect themselves and others, but also as the best course of action to ensure they could arrive in Australia,” Tennis Australia said in a statement quoted by local media. “We reject completely that the playing group was knowingly misled.”
Tennis Australia’s advice was based on the contents of a federal government website to which it had been referred by the federal health minister, the statement added.
In an internal video leaked on Saturday, Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley said his organisation had done “everything they possibly could”.
“There is a lot… of blaming going on but I can assure you our team has done an unbelievable job,” he said in a video published by the Sunday Herald Sun newspaper.
RENATA VORACOVA: Meanwhile Czech player Renata Voracova, who was also detained in the same detention hotel as Djokovic and had her visa revoked after issues with her exemption, was seen by reporters leaving the hotel in a van on Saturday evening.
Her destination was not immediately clear, but she told Czech media earlier that she was still waiting to leave the country after deciding not to appeal the decision.
World number one Novak Djokovic has languished in a Melbourne detention centre since Thursday morning after having his Australian visa cancelled over his Covid-19 vaccine status.
The 34-year-old, who is hoping to defend his Australian Open title and win a record 21st Grand Slam title, faces being deported if he loses a court appeal scheduled for Monday.
AFP looks at how the drama, which has reverberated around the world, has unfolded:
Tuesday, January 4
— Djokovic says he is heading to the Australian Open to defend his title after being granted a medical exemption to play.
All participants at the Australian Open, which starts on January 17, need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or have a medical exemption, assessed by an independent panel of experts.
The Serb has repeatedly refused to confirm if he has been inoculated, with his participation at the opening Grand Slam of the year at Melbourne Park the subject of intense speculation for months.
“I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!” the nine-time Australian Open winner says on Instagram.
Wednesday, January 5
— Australian Open tournament chief Craig Tiley says 26 players or their support staff from the 3,000 or so travelling had asked for an exemption, but only a few were successful.
“There’s been no special favour. There’s been no special opportunity granted to Novak,” said Tiley.
— Stephen Parnis, a former Australian Medical Association vice-president, said it sent an “appalling message” to people trying to stop the spread of Covid-19.
“I don’t care how good a tennis player he is. If he’s refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn’t be allowed in,” Parnis said on Twitter.
Thursday, January 6
— Australia says it has cancelled the entry visa of Djokovic on his arrival in Melbourne.
“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.
— Djokovic is moved to an immigration detention centre while his lawyers lodge an appeal.
— The incident sparks an immediate spat. Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic says 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”.
The player’s father, Srdjan said his son was “held captive for five hours”.
“Jesus was crucified and endured many things but is still alive among us,” he said on Orthodox Christmas Eve. “Novak is also crucified… the best sportsman and man in the world. He will endure.”
— However, Djokovic’s long-time rival and fellow 20-time major winner Rafael Nadal says: “He made his own decisions and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences.”
Friday, January 7
— Djokovic thanks fans for their support. “Thank you to people around the world for your continuous support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated,” he wrote on Instagram.
— Czech doubles player Renata Voracova, who also entered on an exemption as she had recently recovered from Covid, ends up in the same detention facility as Djokovic.
The 38-year-old tells Czech media the centre “is like a prison” with guards on every floor.
Saturday, January 8
— Djokovic was given a Covid-19 vaccine exemption because he tested positive for the virus on December 16, his lawyers say in a 32-page court filing.
However, it is then claimed that Djokovic was at a young players event in Belgrade the following day, without a mask.
The Belgrade tennis federation, in a Facebook post after the December 17 ceremony, reported that Djokovic had handed over cups and awards to best young players in 2021.
— His lawyers also claim that he was held at Melbourne airport on his arrival for eight hours, mostly incommunicado.