SYDNEY (AP) — On a tennis court, Novak Djokovic’s timing is perfect. But when he arrived in Australia to play the first Grand Slam of the year holding documents allowing him to enter the country without a COVID-19 vaccine, his timing hardly could have been worse.
When Djokovic landed in Melbourne on Wednesday he found himself in a city beset by surging virus cases.
Border officials rejected Djokovic’s documentation, cancelled his visa and ordered him out of the country in a move that many Australians cheered. The tennis star's outspoken opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine struck a wrong note in a city where 92% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.
Djokovic is appealing the order to leave and for now remains in Melbourne.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had not objected to the decision of Tennis Australia and the Victoria state government to grant Djokovic a vaccine exemption, quickly embraced the decision to deny him entry, raising questions about whether the world’s top male tennis player — and the reigning Australian Open champion — was being made a scapegoat.
“No one is above these rules,” Morrison said. “Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID. We are continuing to be vigilant.”
Former Australian Open tournament director and Davis Cup player Paul McNamee said the treatment of Djokovic was unfair.
“The guy played by the rules, he got his visa, he arrives, he’s a nine-time champion and whether people like it or not he’s entitled to fair play,” McNamee told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “There’s no doubt there’s some disconnect between the state and the federal government.
“I hate to think politics are involved but it feels that way.”
For the first two years of the pandemic, under Morrison's leadership, Australia pursued a COVID-zero policy, seeking to eliminate the virus through strict border controls and local lockdowns. Australians weren't able to travel overseas except in extraordinary circumstances and many living abroad couldn't return, creating hardships for separated families.
In recent months, Morrison's government has pivoted to a living-with-COVID approach that includes open borders and a lighter touch on domestic restrictions. He implemented the changes just as the highly contagious omicron variant started to take hold.
Morrison, who is seeking re-election in March, has faced heavy criticism for the new strategy. But he points to Australia's low death rate and strong economy — both among the best in the world — as evidence he can steer the country through the crisis.
"We have no choice but to ride the wave (of omicron cases)," he said. “What’s the alternative? What we must do is press on.”
Morrison has also been criticized for failing to secure enough rapid antigen tests to take pressure off PCR testing sites where waiting times in some states have exceeded five hours. He has refused to make rapid tests widely available and free.
Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, has been hardest hit by the current omicron surge, which emerged after state Premier Dominic Perrottet relaxed mask mandates and other rules. Other states have been slower to relax virus-related restrictions, creating tension between Australia's states and the federal government.
The cancellation of Djokovic’s visa was poorly received in his native Serbia, where he is a national hero. The Serbian president condemned the move and Djokovic's family voiced anger at what they portrayed as an affront to the Serbian people.
“You, famous Prime Minister (Morrison) of the faraway naturally beautiful country, are behaving according to your own principles, which have nothing to do with us and our principles,” Djokovic’s father Srdan told reporters. “We are humans, and you, sir, are not.”
Djokovic has been left to wait out the court process at Melbourne’s down-market Park Hotel. Fellow residents there include refugees and asylum-seekers who have been transferred from Australia’s off-shore detention centers of Manus Island and Nauru. In October, a COVID-19 outbreak at the hotel infected about half of the 46 asylum-seekers then being held there.
Djokovic’s brother Djordje said the tennis star had been “taken to a migrant hotel, to a dirty room without any belongings."
“He was treated like a criminal, while he is a healthy and decent man and a sportsman who has not endangered anyone’s life and has not committed any federal or legal offence,” Djordje added.
Melbourne reported 21,728 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, in addition to six deaths and an increase in hospitalizations. By 9 a.m., 18 state-run PCR testing sites had already reached capacity and closed.
In 2020 and 2021, Melbourne was the world's most locked-down city and residents spent 256 days under severe restrictions on movements and gatherings. Djokovic landed in the city against that backdrop, while also refusing to discuss his vaccine status or explain why his health-based exemption had been granted.
The process that led to that decision now is under scrutiny. Tennis Australia insists Djokovic’s exemption was granted by an independent panel of medical experts working blindly, unaware whose vaccine applications they were assessing.
It is not yet known how Djokovic was able to board a plane in Dubai and why he wasn't told he might be turned back at the Australian border. The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday published letters from federal health officials to Tennis Australia making clear that Djokovic could not enter Australia if the grounds for his vaccine exemption were that he had contracted and recovered from COVID-19 within the last six months.
The cases of two other Australian Open players who also received health-based exemptions from having to be vaccinated are currently being closely examined.
Outside the Park Hotel on Friday, protesters against the detention of asylum-seekers held up signs saying “free the refugees.”