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Supporters of Novak Djokovic rally outside the Federal Court of Australia, while the star athlete is in the midst of a legal battle over his visa status. Image Credit: Reuters

Melbourne: The judge hearing Novak Djokovic’s legal challenge to the Australian government’s decision to revoke the star tennis player’s entry visa raised concerns on Monday about the Serbian’s treatment after he was detained on arrival.

Judge Anthony Kelly said it appeared Djokovic had received the required medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination before he travelled to Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis tournament and presented evidence of that when he landed on Wednesday evening.

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“The point that I am somewhat agitated about is what more could this man have done?” Kelly said as Djokovic’s lawyers challenged the government’s decision to revoke his visa.

Djokovic’s plight has been closely followed around the world, creating political tensions between Belgrade and Canberra and sparking heated debate over national vaccination mandates.

At risk is the world No 1’s shot at winning a record 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, the year’s first major, which starts in Melbourne on January 17.

Djokovic, 34, has been held in an immigration detention hotel alongside long-term asylum seeker detainees since Thursday. He was permitted to attend his lawyers’ chambers for the virtual hearings but has not been seen in public since he arrived in Australia.

The judge on Monday extended a bar on Djokovic’s removal from the country until 8pm as the court hearings ran later than scheduled.

His lawyers argue that a recent COVID-19 infection qualified Djokovic for the medical exemption from a requirement for non-Australian citizens entering the country to be double vaccinated.

The Australian government, however, says non-citizens had no right of guaranteed entry to Australia, questioned his claimed exemption and stressed that even Djokovic wins the court action, it reserved the right to detain him again and remove him from the country.

Exchanges between Kelly and Djokovic’s lawyer Nicholas Wood revealed officials made the player switch off his phone from midnight to around 7.42am local time, when the decision to cancel his visa was made.

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Members of the media waiting for a sighting of Novak Djokovic surround a vehicle departing the hotel. Image Credit: Reuters

Officials also reneged on an agreement to give Djokovic until 8.30am to speak to tournament organiser Tennis Australia and lawyers, the judge said. Djokovic was instead woken up by officials at around 6am after a brief rest and pressured to respond “because it was better for him if they made the decision right away”, according to his lawyer.

Wood said Djokovic had provided evidence to support his claim for exemption — having had COVID-19 within the past six months — both before boarding his flight and on arrival.

That exemption was based on criteria defined by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), the independent body tasked with providing guidance to the Australian government.

Wood said the border officials failed to check the ATAGI guidance, even though the visitor online travel declaration form points to ATAGI as the source for exemption definitions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week the government had advised Tennis Australia that a recent infection did not meet the criteria, contrary to the ATAGI guidance.

Government lawyers are due to present their case later on Monday.

Tested positive

The saga kicked off when Djokovic posted a photo of himself leaning on his luggage on Instagram last Tuesday, telling the world he was headed to Australia to compete in the Open with a vaccination exemption.

A long-term vocal opponent of mandatory vaccination, Djokovic had never revealed his vaccination status but court documents confirmed he has not been inoculated.

Photographs published on social media showed him appearing at public functions in Serbia in the days after he tested positive on December 16. It was not clear if Djokovic knew of his positive test at the time.

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said in his first media interview since the furore began that his organisation had spoken with federal and state officials for months to ensure the safe passage of players.

Czech player Renata Voracova, who was detained in the same detention hotel as Djokovic and had her visa revoked after issues with her vaccine exemption, left the country without challenging her status, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.