By Sonali Paul and Courtney Walsh
MELBOURNE – World tennis No. 1 and vaccine opponent Novak Djokovic blamed “human error” on Wednesday for a mistake in his Australian immigration paperwork and apologised for breaking isolation for a photoshoot when he had COVID-19 last month.
The 34-year-old Serbian superstar is chasing a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open beginning on Monday, but could be deported by the government which is unhappy with his medical exemption from inoculation.
The unvaccinated Djokovic was held alongside asylum-seekers at an immigration detention hotel in Melbourne for several days before a judge said that was unreasonable and ordered him free.
Though training now for the tournament at Melbourne Park, Djokovic could still have his visa cancelled again if Immigration Minister Alex Hawke exercises discretionary power.
Djokovic’s cause was not helped by a mistake in his Australian entry declaration where the “no” box was ticked saying he had not travelled elsewhere in the previous two weeks.
In fact, he had gone to Spain from Serbia.
“This was submitted by my support team on my behalf – as I told immigration officials on my arrival – and my agent sincerely apologises for the administrative mistake,” Djokovic said on Instagram.
“This was a human error and certainly not deliberate. We are living in challenging times in a global pandemic and sometimes these mistakes can occur.”
Giving wrong information on the form carries a maximum penalty of 12 months’ prison plus a fine and potential visa cancellation.
‘ERROR OF JUDGEMENT‘
Djokovic was also contrite over an interview and photoshoot for French newspaper L’Equipe on Dec. 18 while infected with COVID-19 for the second time.
“I didn’t want to let the journalist down, but did ensure I socially distanced and wore a mask except when my photograph was being taken,” he said.
“While I went home after the interview to isolate for the required period, on reflection, this was an error of judgement and I accept that I should have rescheduled this commitment.”
Djokovic is a poster boy for “anti-vaxxers”, who oppose inoculation, but he said on his post that he would not comment more out of respect for Australian authorities.
“I just want to have the opportunity to compete against the best players in the world and perform before one of the best crowds in the world,” he said.
Djokovic’s visa was initially cancelled on grounds he was unvaccinated and his medical exemption – based on having COVID last month – was unsatisfactory.
Though fans – many of them Serbian Australians – gave him noisy support when he was detained in the hotel and his family have portrayed him as a champion for individual rights, he may face hostility from the crowd if and when he walks out on court.
More than 90% of adults are double vaccinated in Australia, which is battling a wave of the Omicron variant. The city of Melbourne has endured one of the world’s strictest lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
No stranger to controversy, Djokovic could see unprecedented public fury this time, said Craig O’Shannessy, who worked as an analyst for him.
“Even though he has the mental experience and toughness, this has the potential to be at a level, maybe, that we have not seen in tennis,” he told Reuters.
There may be resentment in the dressing room too. All but three of the top-ranked 100 men are inoculated
World No. 140 Joao Sousa, who is trying to qualify for the main draw this week, called Djokovic “a bit selfish” for bending rules. “Many players … didn’t want to get vaccinated and were forced to do it to be able to play tournaments.”
Australian player Nick Kyrgios, an unlikely ally for his one-time antagonist over the last week, said the controversy would be added fuel for Djokovic if allowed to play.
“He’s going to be very determined to play well, and stick it to everyone.”
In his post, Djokovic denied media reports he also knew he was infected when he attended a Dec. 17 tennis event in Belgrade to present awards to children. Social media showed him posing with the children, without wearing a mask.
“I was asymptomatic and felt good, and I had not received the notification of a positive PCR result until after that event,” he said, adding that a rapid antigen test before the event was negative.
However, in an affidavit to an Australian court, Djokovic said he was diagnosed on Dec. 16, the day before.
With sensitivities heightened around the globe over vaccination, as governments and medics insist it is the only way out of the pandemic, Australia’s top-rating TV network unwittingly revealed the passions behind the scenes.
Two Seven West Media anchors were caught in an expletive-laden “hot mic” off-air conversation condemning Djokovic as sneaky and lying.
Djokovic’s is not the only case garnering attention.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) raised concerns about doubles specialist Renata Voracova, who, unlike the Serbian, left Australia after her visa was cancelled for the same reason.
Voracova is considering consider legal action if Tennis Australia do not compensate her for travel expenses and potential lost prize money.