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World No 1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia is in the eye of a political storm after his exemption from vaccine was rejected upon landing in Australia. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The Australian government insists world tennis No 1 Novak Djokovic isn’t being held against his will as the vaccine-mandate critic remains confined in a hotel used to detain refugees and asylum seekers.

Djokovic “is not being held captive in Australia,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said in a radio interview on Friday. “He is free to leave at any time that he chooses to do so and Border Force will actually facilitate that.”

The player has been held by authorities since late on Wednesday when he landed in Melbourne, where he’s seeking a record 21st Grand Slam victory by adding to his nine Australian Open singles titles. Border Force officials said on Thursday the Serbian star offered insufficient proof to enter the country under current pandemic rules and will be deported.

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Djokovic’s lawyers have mounted a legal challenge against the federal decision that overruled a Victoria state vaccine exemption for the tennis champion that sparked a widespread uproar. He will remain in detention following a court decision to adjourn his appeal to the visa cancellation, the Associated Press reported on Thursday. The proceedings will resume on Monday.

The incident has triggered tensions between Serbia, where Djokovic is seen as a national hero, and Australia, which is battling record daily virus cases after most of the nation abandoned a Covid-Zero strategy to eliminate infections in the community.

Novak Djokovic is not a criminal, a terrorist or an illegal migrant, but is being treated as one by the Australian authorities, which causes understandable resentment by his fans and by Serbia’s citizens.

- Serbian government statement

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told reporters in Belgrade on Thursday that the Djokovic incident was part of “a broad political campaign” in Australia, and urged authorities there to move him from the “infamous” hotel to a rented house where he can train. Serbia’s government summoned Australian Ambassador Daniel Emery for an explanation on Friday.

“Novak Djokovic is not a criminal, a terrorist or an illegal migrant, but is being treated as one by the Australian authorities, which causes understandable resentment by his fans and by Serbia’s citizens,” the government in Belgrade said in a statement. “Djokovic is a victim of a political game and was lured to travel to Australia so that he can be humiliated.”

For now, Australia’s government is holding the line that Djokovic has broken the rules and needs to be deported.

“There’s clearly been a mistake in terms of what Novak Djokovic or his team understood in terms of the entry requirements, or indeed people have acted in misleading ways,” Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said in a television interview on Friday. “Yes, we have taken the steps of reopening, but being double vaccinated has clearly always been a requirement.”

At least three other participants in the Australian Open with the same medical exemption as Djokovic are already in the country with more potentially arriving over the next week, a source told Reuters on Friday.

The 20-time Grand Slam winner, who was spending the Orthodox Christmas in detention on Friday, might not be the only person hoping to take part in the Australian Open to face removal from the country, however.

Three others with exemptions

Andrews has confirmed the Australian Border Force is assessing the credentials of two others who entered the country under the same exemption granted to Djokovic.

A source familiar with the matter told Reuters that a third participant in the Grand Slam also entered Australia on the same framework, which had been put in place by Tennis Australia and the Victoria State government.

Exemptions may also have been granted to players or officials who are yet to arrive in Australia, the source added.


Total exemptions had been lodged by Tennis Australia, but only a handful had been approved

Tournament director Craig Tiley, who is also the TA chief executive, defended the medical exemption granted to Djokovic prior to his detention.

Srdjan Djokovic, the detained player’s father, has claimed more than 20 exemptions were handed out to tennis participants prior to the Australian Border Force’s intervention.

Tiley said this week 26 claims for exemptions had been lodged, but only a “handful” had been approved.

American tennis player Tennys Sandgren on Thursday offered support to Djokovic. “Novak, stay strong, buddy,” Sandgren told Reuters from Nashville. “Hope you get out of there soon.” Djokovic’s parents and the Serbian government have blasted the 20-time Grand Slam champion’s treatment, with his mother saying he is a “prisoner.”