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How tennis star Novak Djokovic ended up in Australian immigration detention

Novak Djokovic pictured at a tournament in Italy in November 2021.
Julian Finney
Getty Images
Novak Djokovic pictured at a tournament in Italy in November 2021.

The Australian Open is still more than a week away, yet all eyes are already focused on Melbourne to see how the saga of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic will play out.

Djokovic — the top-ranked men's tennis player in the world and a noted vaccine skeptic — had appeared set to defend his title in this year's tournament after months of speculation about whether he would participate due to Australia's stringent vaccination requirements for travelers.

But instead, immigration officials canceled his visa after a dramatic hours-long detention at the Melbourne Airport.

Now, Djokovic remains in immigration detention ahead of a court date Monday, just a week before the tournament is set to begin.

"If that evidence is insufficient, then he won't be treated any different to anyone else and he'll be on the next plane home," said Australian prime minister Scott Morrison at a press conference Wednesday. "There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever."

The events have set the tennis world alight. Rafael Nadal, who currently shares the record of most Grand Slam men's singles titles with Djokovic at 20 titles apiece, said Thursday that he felt "sorry" for Djokovic – but added that Djokovic had known about the conditions of entry for months.

"If he wanted, he would be playing here in Australia without a problem," said Nadal, speaking Thursday at a press conference in Melbourne. "He makes his own decisions. He's free to take his own positions, but then there are some consequences."

Here's how it all unfolded:

Prior to this week, there was speculation about whether Djokovic would be able to participate

For months, tennis watchers have speculated about whether Djokovic would be allowed to participate in the Australian Open.

Though no man has won more singles titles at the Open than Djokovic, who has won it nine times, the star has long declined to disclose his vaccination status and has repeatedly criticized vaccine mandates.

In October, he told Serbian news outlet Blic Sport that he might not attend the Open because of his unwillingness to reveal whether he had been vaccinated.

Throughout the pandemic, Australia has had some of the most stringent COVID-19 restrictions of any country. Though it is currently experiencing its largest-ever outbreak, Australia has mostly avoided the scale of outbreaks and deaths seen in the U.S. and Europe.

Among the country's measures is a requirement that people arriving from overseas be fully vaccinated, with limited exemptions. Unvaccinated travelers without an exemption are allowed in the country, but must submit to a two-week quarantine upon landing.

But federal government officials, Victoria state authorities and tournament organizers alike at times presented seemingly contradictory information about whether unvaccinated players would be allowed to participate in the tournament, whether they would be required to quarantine for two weeks or whether they would be allowed in the country at all.

Even when Tennis Australia included Djokovic on a list of Open participants last month, speculation continued.

Djokovic announces he has received an exemption, prompting criticism

The confusion seemed to come to an end early Tuesday when Djokovic announced on social media that he had received an "exemption permission" and posted a photograph of himself at an airport, apparently en route to Australia.

The exemption was confirmed by tournament organizers. Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley told the Australian news program Today that Djokovic's exemption had been granted based on "personal medical information" and that "no special favor" was involved.

Twenty-six athletes applied for an exemption, of which "a handful" were granted, Tiley said in the same interview, which aired Wednesday before Djokovic arrived at the airport.

The exemption requests, including Djokovic's, were reviewed by "two separate independent panels of medical experts" who applied the same guidelines used by the Australian federal government, Tennis Australia said in a statement Tuesday. One of the panels was appointed by the state of Victoria's Department of Health.

Tiley said Wednesday that exemptions to the vaccination requirements could be granted for a variety of reasons, including a documented adverse response to vaccinations or having been infected with COVID-19 in the previous six months.

Multiple news outlets have reported that Djokovic applied under the previous infection exemption.

But federal border officials had warned tournament organizers in November that people with prior COVID-19 infections would not be considered "fully vaccinated" for the purposes of waiving the two-week quarantine, according to reporting by the Sydney MorningHerald.

After Djokovic's announcement, some in Australia criticized the decision to allow an apparently unvaccinated player into a country where residents have endured repeated lockdowns and where almost 92% of people ages 16 and up are fully vaccinated. "We have been taken for fools," wrote Kevin Bartlett, the Australian rules football star and broadcaster.

Australian border authorities canceled his visa upon arrival

Djokovic arrived at the Melbourne airport late Wednesday with his coach and other support staff at Melbourne Airport. There, he was detained for hours before being informed early Thursday that his visa had been canceled.

In a statement, the Australian Border Force said the tennis star had "failed to provide appropriate evidence" to be allowed into the country.

Government officials said that any visa approval is preliminary and that travelers must prove their vaccination status or the validity of their exemptions upon their arrival.

"Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules," wrote the prime minister on Twitter Thursday.

Djokovic is currently being detained at the Park Hotel in Carlton, an immigration facility that has more infamously been used to house asylum seekers.

Serbia's president, Aleksandar Vucic, said the cancellation and detention amounted to "harassment" and asked that Djokovic be allowed to await the legal proceedings in private accommodations.

The apparent disconnect between tournament organizers, state government authorities and federal border officials have prompted questions about whether politics played a role in the decision to revoke Djokovic's visa.

A new round of federal elections are expected in the coming months. For politicians, appearing to allow an attempt by a non-citizen to dodge COVID restrictions could be viewed unfavorably, especially in Melbourne, a city that by some counts was locked down for longer than any other during the pandemic.

"You have this collective experience in Victoria of people being under these very draconian laws. Then, now, apparently it's okay for this tennis star to allegedly coming to Australia without having to meet all these requirements that all these other Australians have had to meet," said Andrew Gibbons, an Australian political scientist at the University of Texas Austin.

Demonstrators rally in support of Djokovic at Serbia's National Assembly in Belgrade on Thursday.
Srdjan Stevanovic / Getty Images
Getty Images
Demonstrators rally in support of Djokovic at Serbia's National Assembly in Belgrade on Thursday.

What comes next

With the tournament scheduled to begin Jan. 17, Djokovic says he will challenge the visa cancellation. A hearing has been scheduled for 10 a.m. local time Monday in Melbourne. A court ordered Thursday that he cannot be deported before then.

If his legal challenge is unsuccessful, Djokovic faces deportation and the possibility of a three-year ban from Australia.

In addition, Australian Border Force is now investigating other people who have arrived for the tennis tournament under similar exemptions, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said Thursday.

"I can assure you that the Australian Border Force is investigating that now," Andrews said in an interview with radio broadcaster 2GB. "ABF needs the opportunity to be able to conduct its investigation. But if the evidence is not there, then they will take the appropriate action."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.