Djokovic fans at melbourne
Supporters of Serbia's Novak Djokovic gather outside a government detention centre where the tennis champion is reported to be staying in Melbourne on Friday. Image Credit: AFP

Melbourne: World No 1 Novak Djokovic on Friday thanked people around the world for their support amid a visa row over COVID-19 vaccines that has seen him being detained at a Melbourne hotel ahead of this month’s Australian Open.

“Thank you to people around the world for your continuous support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated,” the Serbian wrote on Instagram.

Djokovic was granted a medical exemption from Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination requirement following a review by two independent panels prior to boarding his flight, but was denied entry upon landing in Melbourne late on Wednesday.

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The 34-year-old is currently housed in a government detention hotel in the suburb of Carlton, 5 km (2 miles) north of Melbourne Park, after authorities cancelled his visa when he arrived in Australia.

The player’s lawyers launched an appeal seeking to overturn the federal government decision, with a court agreeing not to deport him before a full hearing scheduled for Monday.

Djokovic was joined in Australian immigration detention by Czech women’s player Renata Voracova. Both players were kept at the modest Park Hotel in inner-city Melbourne, where scores of asylum-seekers are also housed behind grey walls and locked windows.

Unlike Djokovic, whose determination to resist deportation and play in the Australian Open has rallied his homeland, 81st-ranked Voracova planned to leave after being caught in similar circumstances, the Czech Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“Renata Voracova decided to drop out of the tournament due to limited possibilities for training and to leave Australia,” it said, adding that it had made a diplomatic protest and that several other players were caught in the same situation.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) said on Friday that one person had voluntarily left Australia while a third person’s visa had also been cancelled. It did not given names.

Free to leave anytime

The initial decision to grant Djokovic entry outraged many in Australia, which is battling its worst surge infections and where the adult vaccination rate is more than 90 per cent.

Canberra rejected on Friday suggestions by Serbian supporters, including Djokovic’s family, that he was a prisoner. “He is free to leave at any time that he chooses,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews told reporters.

Hailed as a hero online by anti-vaccination campaigners, Djokovic’s plight drew a mixed response from his peers.

Former World No 1 Boris Becker, who has coached Djokovic, said he was making a big mistake with his anti-vaccination stance. “It is one that threatens what remains of his career and his chance to cement himself as the greatest player of all time,” Becker wrote in the Daily Mail newspaper.

Djokovic final
Novak Djokokovic thanked his fans for the support after being denied entry on his arrival in Melbourne. Image Credit: AFP

Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who like Djokovic has won 20 Grand Slams, said he felt sorry for his rival “but at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago”.

Kyrgios comes to Serb's support

Australia’s Nick Kyrgios said he supported vaccination “but how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad”.

Djokovic’s wife Jelena posted a photo of the couple embracing on a beach to mark Orthodox Christmas, saying: “The only law that we should all respect across every single border is love and respect for another human being”.

Djokovic had received permission to enter Victoria without a vaccination from the state government, which however does not have the authority to issue visas to international visitors. The Age newspaper reported that the exemption was because he had contracted COVID-19 in the past six months.

Meanwhile, Djokovic will be allowed to play in the French Open later this year even if he is not vaccinated against COVID-19, France’s sports minister said on Friday.

France does not bar unvaccinated people from entering its territory but imposes tougher restrictions than on those who have had the shot.

Sports minister Roxane Maracineanu said International Tennis Federation protocols at major events meant an unvaccinated player would be entitled to enter France and participate in Roland Garros, which begins in May.