Australian Open organizers named Novak Djokovic in the official draw as top seed Thursday, despite a threat of deportation still looming large over the Serbian’s bid to a record 21st Grand Slam.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke could exercise discretionary power to cancel the visa over concern about the Serbian’s medical exemption from Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination rules.
The 34-year-old defending champion, who practiced at the Rod Laver Arena Thursday, drew unseeded fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic for his opening match, probably on Monday or Tuesday.
The saga has intensified the global debate over the rights of the unvaccinated and become a tricky political issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he campaigns for reelection.
Australia is due to hold an election by May, and while Morrison’s government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security, it has not escaped criticism over the botched handling of Djokovic’s visa.
Djokovic, a vaccine skeptic, fueled widespread anger in Australia when he announced he was heading to Melbourne with a medical exemption from requirements for visitors to be inoculated against COVID-19.
On arrival, Australian Border Force decided his exemption was invalid and he was held alongside asylum-seekers at an immigration detention hotel for several days.
A court Monday allowed him to stay on grounds that officials had been “unreasonable” at his interview in a seven-hour process in the middle of the night.
The government must now decide whether to let Djokovic remain and bid for a record men’s 21st major title.
“What he should (do), is kick him out,” Melbourne resident Tyler Agnew said of the pending decision, reflecting widespread anger in a country that has endured some of the world’s longest lockdowns and has a 90% vaccination rate among adults
Djokovic’s cause was not helped by a mistake in his entry declaration, where a box was ticked stating he had not traveled abroad in the two weeks before leaving for Australia.
In fact, he had gone to Spain from Serbia Djokovic attributed the error to his agent and acknowledged he also should not have done an interview and photoshoot for a French newspaper on Dec. 18 while infected with COVID-19.
‘Taking a toll on him’
Fans, including many Serbian Australians, gave him noisy support when he was detained. Anti-vaxxers have hailed him as a hero, and his family has portrayed him as a champion of individual rights.
But Australian former tennis player Todd Woodbridge said he met Djokovic on Thursday and the uproar was affecting him.
“He is still very aware he may not get to the starting blocks for round one,” Woodbridge, who is now a commentator, told a tournament television program. “He is very, very visible … it’s taking a toll on him.”
An online poll by the News Corp media group found that 83% of nearly 60,000 respondents were in favor of the government trying to deport Djokovic.
“I would just say though, you know, just get vaccinated. That is the key,” said Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state where Melbourne is the capital.
“That’s what I’ve said to every single Victorian, that’s what I’ve done, that’s what my kids have done, that’s what families, 93% of our community has done that, and I’m very proud of them for doing it, I’m very grateful.”
There may also be resentment in the dressing room, where all but three of the top 100 men are inoculated.
Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas told India’s WION television channel Djokovic was playing by his own rules.
“No one would have thought I can come to Australia unvaccinated and not having to follow the protocols, which takes a lot of daring to do and putting the Grand Slam at risk,” he said.
Tennis great Martina Navratilova told Australian television Djokovic should “suck it up” and go home.
“The bottom line is, sometimes your personal beliefs have to be trumped by what’s good for the greater good, for those around you, for your peers,” she told Australian broadcaster Seven’s Sunrise program.
“You have two choices, get vaccinated or just don’t go play.”
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