by John Py and Rod McGuirk
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – Novak Djokovic held a practice session on Tuesday, a day after he skipped immigration detention, focused on defending his Australian Open title while he still faces the prospect of relegation. Because they haven’t vaccinated against COVID-19.
The top-ranked tennis star entered the show court at Melbourne Park, where the tournament is held, within hours of winning a legal battle that allowed her to stay in the country.
The issue is whether he has a valid exemption from regulations requiring vaccination to enter Australia because he has recently recovered from COVID-19. A judge ruled on Monday that he could stay, but the immigration minister could still send him home.
New questions also arose on Tuesday over an immigration form to which he said he had not traveled in the 14 days prior to his flight to Australia. The Monte Carlo-based athlete was seen in Spain and Serbia during that two-week period.
The back-and-forth over whether Djokovic followed Australia’s rules caused uproar in the country and beyond. When outspoken skeptics of vaccines were first granted visas to travel to Melbourne, many complained that they were being given special treatment from a country known for its strict travel restrictions during the pandemic.
But amid a flood of confusing information about the rules, others have alleged that Djokovic has become a convenient scapegoat for an Australian government facing criticism for its recent handling of the pandemic.
The nine-time Australian Open winner practices at the Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday afternoon. Soon after, the tournament’s organizers made him the top seed in the men’s singles draw.
The athlete was seen hitting shots from behind the baseline, taking feedback from his coach, and stretching along the court with a trainer. He spent four nights at an immigration hotel and is now back in swing, less than a week before the start of the Grand Slam tournament.
“Despite what has happened, I want to stay and try to compete @AustralianOpen. I stay focused on that,” Djokovic tweeted early Tuesday. “I flew here to play at one of the most important events in front of amazing fans.”
But he still faces the prospect of relegation before the first match.
Djokovic was exempted from their vaccination rules by the Victoria state government and tournament organizer Tennis Australia to compete because he was infected with COVID-19 last month. This apparently allowed him to obtain a visa to travel.
But federal border officials stopped him on arrival last week and revoked his visa. Lawyers for the government have said that infection in the last six months was the basis for exemption only in cases in which the coronavirus caused serious illness.
It is not clear why Djokovic was ever granted a visa, if so.
A federal judge reinstated Djokovic’s visa on procedural grounds on Monday, saying he was not given enough time to speak to his lawyers to oppose the decision. But immigration minister Alex Hawk is still considering using his power to deport the 34-year-old Serbian under a separate law.
Hawke’s office issued a statement saying the matter is still pending.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government has accused Tennis Australia of defeat, with ministers accusing players of misleading players about vaccine requirements. But newspapers have reported that the sports body had requested the Home Office to check visa paperwork for Djokovic and other players before the flight.
Documents released by the Federal Circuit Court on Tuesday revealed a new potential blockage after Djokovic told officials he had not traveled in the 14 days prior to his flight to Australia.
Djokovic answered “no” to a question about a previous trip on his Australian travel declaration form in Melbourne just before midnight on Wednesday.
But he was filmed on December 25 playing tennis in the streets of the Serbian capital Belgrade and later training in Spain – all within a 14-day window. He traveled from Marbella, Spain to Australia.
Djokovic told border officials that Tennis Australia had completed the declaration for him, but the official who canceled his visa said the body itself may have done so based on Djokovic’s knowledge.
It was not clear whether the document surfaced during Monday’s hearing.
The form notes that giving false or misleading information is a serious offense – and may be grounds for deportation.
The play has polarized views and garnered strong support for the 20-time Grand Slam winner in his native Serbia.
Morrison spoke about the issue with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Tuesday, and they agreed to stay in touch.
“The PM explained our non-discriminatory border policy and its role in protecting Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Morrison’s office said in a statement.
Brnabic asked Morrison to make sure Djokovic was treated with respect, Serbia’s public broadcaster Radio Television reported.
“The Prime Minister particularly emphasized the importance of conditions for training and physical preparation for the upcoming competition,” RTS reported.
The drama has put Morrison’s government in trouble ahead of the elections in May. While his government was widely praised for curbing the country’s COVID-19 death toll at the start of the pandemic, he has recently been criticized for loosening some rules, such as Omicron. The cases are increasing rapidly.
The opposition Home Affairs spokeswoman, Christina Keneally, blamed visa confusion on the lack of planning by Morrison’s government and said the saga made Australia “like a joke” on the world stage.
“It does incredible harm to Australia” if Djokovic is deported, Keneally told Seven Network television, but “if he gets to stay it does incredible damage to our tough border laws and to the lives of Australians.” A real disgrace to those who have worked hard on the lockdown and vaccination.”
Andy Murray, who lost four Australian Open finals to Djokovic, said Court’s victory was a “positive” one for his fellow major winner, but still had details to clarify.
“I’m sure we’ll hear from him in the next few days,” Murray said. “I hope we can move on from this now. It looks like he’s going to be able to play and compete at the Australian Open.”
McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia. Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.