Novak Djokovic trains ahead of Australian Open after court win

Anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic hits the practice courts as he edges closer to playing at the Australian Open with no visa decision from the immigration minister today – but the tennis superstar is not in the clear yet

  • Novak Djokovic pictured training at Rod Laver Area in Melbourne on Tuesday 
  • Serb spotted hitting balls with James McCabe in preparation for Australian Open
  • Comes after he was freed from six days of migrant detention when a judge ruled the government unfairly tore up his visa for being unvaccinated  
  • But his fate is still not assured with immigration minister considering whether to tear up his visa a second time and press ahead with deporting him 

Novak Djokovic was on court training for the Australian Open in Melbourne today even as his dream of a record 21st Grand Slam victory sat in the hands of the country’s immigration minister.

The 34-year-old Serb was pictured hitting balls with 18-year-old Australian James McCabe at the Rod Laver Arena, a day after a judge freed him from migrant detention and ruled ministers unfairly cancelled his visa for being unvaccinated.

But Djokovic’s fate is not yet sealed because immigration minister Alex Hawke has the authority to overrule the court and tear up individual visas, a power that he insists he could still use to deport Djokovic.

Mr Hawke’s office said no decision over the visa is expected today, but added the matter is still under consideration. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Serbian leader Ana Brnabic have also spoken about the visa and ‘agreed to stay in contact’.

The world No.1 says it is his intention to remain in Melbourne and compete for a title that would see him surpass Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to become the most-decorated men’s singles player of all time.

 Novak Djokovic was pictured training at the Rod Laver Arena with 18-year-old Australian James McCabe in Melbourne today ahead of the Australian Open

Djokovic began training after being freed from six days in migrant detention, following a judge’s ruling that the government unfairly cancelled his visa

The Serb was seen speaking to coaches and physios as he tries to get his bid to become the most-decorated men’s singles player of all time back on track

How Novak Djokovic could still be deported and banned from Australia for three years 

Despite a judge ruling that Novak Djokovic does have a valid medical exemption to enter Australia, the Serb is still facing deportation under the Migration Act.

Under section 133C of the act, the immigration minister has wide-ranging powers to revoke visas if they personally do not believe the holder has a right to remain in the country.

The minister, currently Alex Hawke, can cancel a visa if he believes the person poses a risk to ‘health, safety or good order of the Australian community or a segment of the Australian community’ or the ‘health or safety of an individual or individuals’. 

The same law can also be used to ban the visa-holder from re-entering Australia for three years, though this is at the discretion of the minister and is not automatic.

Because the power is discretionary and far-reaching, there are very few grounds on which the decision can be appealed in court.  

Mr Hawke has said he is still considering whether to use the power on Djokovic, meaning he is not yet free of the threat of deportation. 

He was first pictured on court at midnight last night for a training session, immediately after leaving his lawyer’s office where he had been holed up for the day during his court hearing.  

‘I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans,’ Djokovic in an Instagram post that accompanied the picture.

Wearing a t-shirt and shorts, he limbered up in a gym on Tuesday accompanied by coach Goran Ivanisevic before heading to centre court, AFP journalists saw.

Television cameras filmed him from helicopters as he played.

Djokovic, a nine-time Australian Open champion, jetted into the country six days ago carrying a medical exemption from vaccination due to a positive coronavirus test on December 16 last year.

After overnight questioning at Melbourne airport, border officials decided the exemption was not valid, cancelled his visa and transferred him to a detention centre pending deportation.

‘I am not vaccinated,’ Djokovic had told the border official, according to a transcript released by the court. 

He expressed bewilderment that his exemption, approved by two medical panels in Australia, was not accepted.

The limited number of foreigners allowed into Australia must be fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption.

The government insists that a recent infection does not count as an exemption.

Federal circuit court judge Anthony Kelly dramatically reversed the visa decision Monday, ordering the cancellation be ‘quashed’, that the player be released immediately and that the government pay his legal costs.

The government had surrendered after conceding that Djokovic’s airport interview was ‘unreasonable’ because the player had not been given the promised time to respond.

A key exchange between Djokovic and border guards contained within the transcript showed how he had been given just 20 minutes to come up with additional documents to support his visa, at 4am, without the use of his phone.

‘So you’re giving me legally 20 minutes to try to provide additional information that I don’t have? At 4 o clock in the morning,’ he said.

Novak Djokovic touched down in Melbourne about 11.30pm on Wednesday night, and was swiftly taken in for questioning by Border Force officials.

He spent about six hours speaking with officials before a decision was made to cancel his visa on the basis that he could not validate his medical exemption to arrive in Australia without a Covid-19 vaccine.

He was swiftly taken to a detention centre in the heart of Melbourne, where he remains. 

Why is Djokovic in court?

Immediately after his visa was cancelled, Djokovic and his team indicated they would fight the decision. 

They appeared before the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia on Thursday afternoon, where the matter was postponed until Monday, 10am.

On Monday, Djokovic’s lawyers will argue to reverse the decision to cancel the visa. The government hope to have the decision supported.

If Djokovic loses his appeal, he could be deported as early as Monday night, but it is likely to be more complex than that.

Who is responsible for the bungle?

Court documents and leaked letters have helped piece together the puzzle of how the messy visa situation occurred.

Since Djokovic was detained, officials have hand balled responsibility between themselves. 

Djokovic was informed by Tennis Australia that he was exempt to travel to Australia and play. It’s understood his application was assessed by two bodies – one assigned by TA and the other by the Victorian state government.

On Saturday night, it was revealed via court documents that Djokovic had also received correspondence from the Department of Home Affairs – a federal body – which indicated he was free to travel to Australia.

But this has been revealed to be an arrivals assessment form, and not official confirmation he was granted quarantine-free travel. 

No single party has accepted responsibility for the debacle, and at least one other tennis player has been sent home after they were initially approved with the same exemption.

Will Djokovic play in the Australian Open?

At a court hearing on Monday, Djokovic was told that border guards had been wrong to tear up his visa and that he would be allowed into the country.

Australia’s immigration minister was then given four hours to decide whether to use his personal powers to override the court’s decision, tear up Djokovic’s visa, and push ahead with deportation.

The time limit lapsed, and so Djokovic was allowed to go.

Australia insists it is still considering whether to deport him, but in the meantime he is free to compete in the Open which begins on January 17.

Djokovic is hoping to claim victory which would see him become the most-decorated athlete ever in the men’s singles tournament. 

‘I mean you kind of put me in a very awkward position where at 4 in the morning I can’t call director of Tennis Australia, I can’t engage with anybody from the Victorian state government through Tennis Australia. 

‘I just… you put me in a very uncomfortable position. I don’t know what else can I tell you. I mean everything that that they… that I was asked to do is here.’

After being told by border guards that having recovered from Covid was not sufficient reason to get a border certificate, Djokovic added: ‘The government said okay, fine, access granted, travel declaration, QR code, you are free to go.

‘Otherwise I wouldn’t be flying here. There’s absolutely no way I would put myself in a position to come and sit here with you… 

‘I made it all the way to Australia because you know they all made it very clear and certain to me that I have all the documentation that I possibly can provide to you.’

Following the judge’s ruling, Djokovic’s family help a triumphant press conference in Belgrade where they blasted his treatment by Australian authorities which they compared to ‘torture’.

Fuming that her son had been ‘stripped of his rights’, mother Dijana described the court win as ‘the biggest victory in his career, bigger than all his Grand Slams’.

‘Truth and justice came to the light. I would like to thank the justice system of Australia,’ said his brother Djordje.

Shortly before the family press conference took place, a car thought to be carrying Djokovic had emerged from his lawyer’s offices in central Melbourne which had served as a courtroom for the virtual hearing.

Police, fans and journalists had massed in the streets outside, waiting for hours for news of the player’s fate.

The emergence of the car was enough to send the crowd into overdrive as they mobbed the vehicle, waving Serbian flags and chanting ‘Nole’ – Djokovic’s nickname.

At one point, a man climbed on top of the car and began jumping up and down, prompting police to use pepper spray to drive people back.

Several people were detained at the scene, while others were seen crouched at the roadside washing their eyes out with milk to stop the spray from burning.

As the dust settled on Tuesday, calls began to mount for Australia to be stripped of the right to host the Open over Djokovic’s treatment while authorities were put on ‘red alert’ for disruption between his fans and others attending the Open.

Djokovic, who has long been a divisive figure in tennis, has become a lightning-rod for the frustration many Australians feel at their government’s handling of the Covid pandemic.

While the country has one of the lowest case and death rates in the world, that has come at the expense of draconian travel bans, frequent harsh lockdowns, and prolonged disruption to normal life.

Melbourne, where the tournament is being played, has been particularly hard-hit – suffering for 262 under one of the world’s longest lockdowns.

That is what prompted the backlash against Djokovic when a public which has been banned from travelling to see loved ones for much of the last two years discovered the millionaire sportsman had been granted a medical exemption to cross the border despite refusing to be vaccinated.

The Serb is now likely to get a hostile reaction from the home crowd in Melbourne, amid fears of clashes with his fans – who view him as an unfairly-maligned pariah.

Tennis authorities now fear a tinderbox situation and are reviewing security arrangements should Djokovic be able to play when the tournament finally gets underway on January 17.

Amid the unedifying scenes, calls began to mount for Australia to be stripped of the right to host the tournament altogether.

Alex Hawke, the immigration minister, has the power to overrule the courts and deport Djokovic and insists he is still considering the move

Djokovic thanked fans and vowed to compete at the Australian Open after being freed from migrant detention after he won an appeal over having his visa torn up

US celebrity trainer Justin Allen added: ‘If the Australian government exercise executive powers and decide to deport Novak Djokovic anyway- despite its own court ruling today- the Australian Open should be stripped of its grand slam status and become a non-ranking event.’

Australian Open quarter finalist Tennys Sandgren first sparked the calls when Djokovic’s visa was originall cancelled last Thursday.

‘Just to be crystal clear here 2 separate medical boards approved his exemption And politicians are stopping it, Australia doesn’t deserve to host a grand slam,’ he tweeted.

Mr Hawke’s refusal to rule out using his powers to cancel Djokovic’s visa has sparked controversy among politicians in Australia, with politician and former tennis star John Alexander saying that the Open will be ‘diminished’ if the Serbian is not able to play.

Mr Alexander leapt to the defence of Djokovic and argued the nine-time Australian Open champion complied with the health entry requirements and didn’t appear to be an unreasonable health risk to Australia.

The Liberal MP and former world No. 8 said retaining the Australian Open as a grand slam was in the nation’s interest before taking a swipe at Mr Hawke.

He said Mr Hawke’s discretionary powers to deport is meant for criminals and contagious people, not ‘political problems’.

‘It would appear Covid-negative Novak has complied with all health entry requirements, the judge asking: “What more could this man have done?,’ Mr Alexander wrote.

‘Based on this, Novak does not seem to present an unreasonable health risk to Australia.

‘So what would be the ‘public interest’ the Minister could potentially use to exercise his personal powers to deport our defending Australian Open tennis champion?

‘Retaining the Australian Open as a grand slam event, I would argue is in our national interest.

‘The minister’s ‘personal powers to cancel visas’ are designed to prevent criminals otherwise walking our streets, or to prevent a contagious person otherwise walking our streets; they’re not designed to assist in dealing with a potential political problem of the day.’

Much of Australia’s media said Tuesday doubts had emerged over the accuracy of Djokovic’s travel declaration, reportedly filled out before he flew in from Spain.

Police officers pepper spray supporters to clear a road for Serbia’s tennis champion Novak Djokovic’s car in Melbourne on January 9 

Djokovic’s family – (left to right) mother Djiana, father Srdjan, and brother Djordje – slammed their son’s treatment in Australia, likening it to ‘torture’ while adding that the athlete ‘did nothing wrong’

A copy of his declaration showed a tick in the box to confirm he had not and would not travel in the 14 days before landing in Australia on January 5.

But the player had reportedly been in Serbia before Spain.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said he was ‘considering whether to cancel Mr. Djokovic’s visa’ by using his ministerial powers.

Though he said it would be ‘inappropriate’ to say more for legal reasons. 

As Djokovic practised in Melbourne Park, some fans said he should be allowed to play.

‘I can imagine some people will be pretty angry about it,’ said 22-year-old fan Harrison Denicolo.

Ofek Dvir Ovadia, 22, said he was excited to see Djokovic play in the Australian Open.

‘He will cop a fair bit of abuse I reckon when he plays just from the fans in general but I hope a few people get behind him,’ he said.

Until Monday, Djokovic had been held at the former Park Hotel, a five-storey detention facility, which holds about 32 migrants trapped in Australia’s hardline immigration system – some for many years.

Hundreds of Djokovic fans, anti-vaccination protesters and migration rights activists had rallied outside the centre during his stay.

On Tuesday morning, there were just two television reporters outside and no protesters.

A lone cardboard sign read: ‘Free Novak and all the refugees’.

The ATP, which runs the men’s tennis tour, said the affair leading up to the court case had been ‘damaging on all fronts, including for Novak’s well-being and preparation for the Australian Open’. 

Rafael Nadal, one of Djokovic’s main rivals for the title, said ‘it is the fairest thing’ for the Serbian to play in the Australian Open.

‘Regardless of whether or not I agree on some things with Djokovic, without any doubt, justice has spoken,’ Nadal told Spanish radio station Onda Cero.

Tennis great Martina Navratilova said on social media: ‘Though I disagree with not getting vaccinated; at the end of the day it seems Novak did play by the rules as they were for the exemption and was burned. Let him play.’

Though it had no bearing on his court case, Djokovic’s claim of a positive test on December 16 stirred controversy after it emerged he had attended a gathering that day for the Serbian national postal service, which launched a stamp series in his honour.

And pictures shared by the Belgrade tennis federation showed him at a young players’ event in the city on December 17.

It was reported that he handed over cups and prizes to players. No one was wearing a mask.

MIKE DICKSON: The tone-deaf Djokovic clan were like raging bulls in a china shop when cool heads and humility were required 

Tearing around like bulls in a Belgrade china shop, the Djokovic family were at it again on Monday.

No sooner had their most famous member regained his freedom from a Melbourne judge than they were almost inviting the Australian government to intervene and send him home.

When cool heads and humility were required they called a press conference in the Serbian capital that struck a belligerent and triumphalist tone.

These walking public relations blunderbusses lined up to speak in terms of ‘victory’ and ‘big wins’. For good measure, Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, referred to his ‘torture’ at the hands of the Australian government.

It is not known whether Canberra immigration minister Alex Hawke was still up watching this monologue of the tone-deaf.

Novak Djokovic’s uncle Goran, mother Dijana, father Srdjan and brother Djordje at a press conference in Belgrade on Monday

Family solidarity is to be admired, but it is hard to think that he will have been impressed by the chaotic gathering in Belgrade. It appeared to serve no purpose other than antagonising the Australian authorities.

Today Hawke still had Djokovic’s fate in his hands, as he has the executive power to go above the court order handed down earlier by Judge Anthony Kelly and deport the nine-times champion.

Novak himself was billed as joining the conference by link from Melbourne, where it was midnight. Instead he had rushed straight to the Rod Laver Arena for a practice session, swapping his legal team for the one helping him with his tennis.

He said he was pleased and grateful and posted a smiling picture of himself, proudly unvaccinated, with his support staff on the floodlit court where he has won so often.

Even that had an uncomfortable hint of triumph about it. Not unlike the post of January 4 which ignited this extraordinary saga, when he announced he had found the means to travel Down Under.

There has not been much concession to the sensitivities of a population who have been among the world’s most locked-down under authoritarian Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews.

That said, the earlier comfortable straight-sets win in the court of justice against the Ministry of Home Affairs was a cause for celebration.

‘The point I’m somewhat agitated about is, what more could this man have done?’ Judge Kelly had wondered aloud, as he weighed up the highly legalistic arguments about whether airport border processes had been fairly applied to the Serb.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic still doesn’t know for certain if he will be allowed to stay in Australia to play in the Australian Open

He was convinced to the extent that he not only overthrew the decision to detain the champion in a hotel for refugees, he also awarded costs in favour of Djokovic, which will be paid by the same tax-payers uneasy about having him in their midst.

The judge’s agitation was nothing compared to that of the player’s Serbian supporters later. Amid a febrile atmosphere they thronged around his lawyers’ downtown offices, with some scuffles breaking out.

Erroneous word had reached them that their hero was being detained again, an incorrect rumour that had sprung from the Djokovic family.

The clan were notably less forthcoming at their press gathering when asked, by foreign reporters, about the sequence of events following his supposed positive test on December 16.

Djokovic was subsequently seen out in public situations for two days afterwards. His brother Djordje, who speaks excellent English, became uneasy when asked about the positive, maintaining merely that ‘all the documents that are public are legal’.

He then shut down the conference, which was followed by a round of applause, and then a brief singsong among many of those who were present.

The minister’s colleague, Liberal MP and former tennis champion John Alexander slammed the government’s consideration to re-cancel Djokovic’s visa

Every time you think this situation could not get more bizarre it seems to pile on another layer of drama or absurdity. When a grinning Nigel Farage, scourge of Eastern European migration, turned up at the Djokovic family home on Sunday and posted footage of himself in Novak’s trophy room that about summarised it.

If Djokovic does make it to the start line on Monday — which is far from certain — then Tennis Australia may quietly think to themselves that there is no such thing as bad publicity. They are in the business of shifting tickets and commanding international attention for their flagship event.

The eyes of the world will be on the one-time poor relation of the four Grand Slams, although vox pops suggest there is a significant strand of locals who will not go anywhere near Melbourne Park on principle.

Tennis Australia still have questions to answer, notably their involvement in, and the timeline around, the permission given to Djokovic to arrive unjabbed. Competitors were given a strict December 10 deadline to get all their documentation in.

As for the player, if allowed to compete he faces a race against time to shrug off the cobwebs from six days of effective incarceration.

Over the past year he has looked slightly less invincible in the early rounds of the Grand Slams than he used to, notably last time out in New York. He could be more vulnerable.

Incredibly, it has almost been lost in all this that, if successful, he would take the lead in the overarching race with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most Grand Slams.

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