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Novak Djokovic: Tennis star given reprieve after Australian visa cancelled

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By Euronews  with AP, AFP
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Serbia's Novak Djokovic after defeating Croatia's Marin Cilic during their Davis Cup tennis semi-final match at Madrid Arena in Madrid, Spain, on Dec. 3, 2021.
Serbia's Novak Djokovic after defeating Croatia's Marin Cilic during their Davis Cup tennis semi-final match at Madrid Arena in Madrid, Spain, on Dec. 3, 2021.   -   Copyright  Bernat Armangue / AP

Novak Djokovic, threatened with deportation by Australia who refused him entry and cancelled his visa, has been given a reprieve until Monday.

The Serb, who has been held by immigration authorities in Melbourne since arriving on Wednesday night to compete in the Australian Open, has challenged the authorities' decision to deny him entry.

At an initial hearing on Thursday, a government lawyer said the deportation would not take place until a further hearing on Monday.

The saga has turned into a diplomatic incident with Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic accusing Australia of "bad treatment".

The world's number one seed was earlier this week cleared to play in the Australian Open after being granted a medical exemption ending months of uncertainty about his participation because of the strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements in place for the tournament.

But the player found himself held up at the border on arrival in Melbourne on because of a problem with his visa.

According to the Australian press, the multiple winner of the tournament and his team had not filed for the correct visa that would allow him to enter the country with a vaccination exemption.

After hours of deliberation, the Australian authorities made a decision not to let him into the country.

'Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic'

The country's prime minister Scott Morrison said the player would be treated like any other arrival, and if he did not fulfil the conditions required for entry he would find himself on the "first plane" home.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić posted a statement on Instagram on Wednesday night, claiming that he spoke with Djokovic and that the government is doing all in its power to "end the harassment of the world's best player in the shortest time possible".

"Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic, for justice and for truth," Vučić concluded.

Novak Djokovic's father Srđan told Serbian media late on Wednesday that his son was "the Spartacus of the new world," and threatened to "fight them (Australian authorities) in the street" in protest if he was not released "within half an hour".

Djokovic, who is seeking a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, has continually refused to reveal if he is vaccinated against COVID-19. In June 2020, he was heavily criticised after a number of tennis players at his Adria Tour ad-hoc tournament tested positive to the virus, himself included.

'Not treated differently to anyone'

The Victoria state government has mandated that all players, staff, and fans attending the Australian Open must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted.

Australian Open organisers issued a statement to confirm Djokovic will be allowed to compete at the tournament, which starts on 17 January, and was on his way to Australia.

Earlier he withdrew from Serbia's team for the ATP Cup, which started last weekend in Sydney.

"Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts," the statement said.

"One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health. They assessed all applications to see if they met the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation guidelines."

Tennis Australia said the process included the redaction of personal information to ensure privacy for all applicants. That means Djokovic was not obliged to make his exemption public.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley told local media on Wednesday he empathised with people's reactions to Djokovic's statements "around vaccination".

"However, it's ultimately up to him to discuss with the public his condition if he chooses to do that and the reason why he received an exemption," he added.

Tiley said that 26 players or support staff made anonymous applications for a medical exemption, although only a "handful" were granted.

He said Djokovic was treated no differently to anyone.

The decision on the exemption will be widely debated in a city where most people endured months of strict lockdowns and harsh travel restrictions at the height of the pandemic.

Reaction on social media quickly turned to questions about the grounds for Djokovic's exemption, and what quarantine conditions he will have to meet on arrival in Australia.

Jaala Pulford, the state's acting minister for sports, on Wednesday said that "no-one is or will be receiving special treatment because of who they are or what they have achieved professionally."

"Novak isn't coming to play at the Australian Open because he's, you know, the biggest tennis star of them all, he's coming because he has been able to demonstrate through this process that he has an eligibility under the rules that apply to everybody else in the country," Pulford went on.

'There are consequences'

Last year, all foreign players had to spend two weeks in hotel quarantine before the Australian Open, pushing the year's first major tournament back from its usual mid-January start.

There were also strict caps on crowd numbers and days when fans weren't allowed into Melbourne Park as coronavirus cases surged.

There will be no cap on crowd numbers for the 2022 tournament, although proof of double vaccination for COVID-19 is a requirement for entry.

The 34-year-old has won nine of his 20 major titles at the Australian Open. He shares the men's record for most majors with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

His Spanish rival, who contracted COVID-19 last month despite having received two doses of the vaccine, expressed little sympathy for him on Thursday.

"If you are vaccinated, you can play at the Australian Open and everywhere, and in my opinion the world has suffered enough to not play by the rules," Nadal said.

Djokovic "made his own decisions, and everyone is free to make their decisions, but then there are consequences," he added.

Djokovic has not played at tour level since the Davis Cup Finals in early December and has recently been practising in Spain.