Wednesday, 31st May 2023
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Djokovic opens dramatic court battle to stay in Australia

Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic launches a make-or-break court battle on Monday to stay in Melbourne and defend his Australian Open title, arguing he has an all-clear because of a positive coronavirus test in December.

[FILE] People hold placards up at a government detention centre where Serbia’s tennis champion Novak Djokovic is reported to be staying in Melbourne, after Australia said it had cancelled the entry visa of Djokovic, opening the way to his detention and deportation in a dramatic reversal for the tennis world number one. (Photo by William WEST / AFP)

Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic launches a make-or-break court battle on Monday to stay in Melbourne and defend his Australian Open title, arguing he has an all-clear because of a positive coronavirus test in December.

Djokovic’s fight to overturn the surprise cancellation of his visa, and end his ensuing detention in a notorious Melbourne immigration facility, culminates in a highly publicised online hearing in federal court.

The vaccine-sceptic Serbian star awaited the showdown holed up in the former Park Hotel, a five-storey facility that holds about 32 migrants trapped in Australia’s hardline immigration system — some for years.

Nobody is allowed in or out except staff.

On Sunday, more than 100 protesters, many of them migrant rights activists, gathered in a park opposite the centre.

“Free, free, the refugees,” the crowd chanted as dozens of police stood by.

With a week to go before the January 17 start of the Australian Open, any delay could dash the 34-year-old’s hopes of winning his 10th crown in Melbourne, and a record 21st Grand Slam title.

In an order released to the public Sunday, Judge Anthony Kelly said the one-day case will go ahead as scheduled at 10:00 am Monday (2300 GMT Sunday), refusing a government request to adjourn until Wednesday.

Djokovic’s lawyers submitted a 35-page document Saturday arguing his visa was wrongly cancelled and should be reinstated, allowing him to compete.

The team argued that Djokovic’s claim of a positive PCR test on December 16, 2021 means he meets the criteria for a vaccine exemption under the guidance of Australia’s immunisation advisory body.

– ‘I’m humbled’ -But government lawyers rebuffed his arguments point-by-point and urged the judge to dismiss the case, with costs.

Djokovic is unvaccinated and poses a risk to people and the health system in Australia, they said in a 13-page document lodged with the court Sunday.

The player’s lawyers say Tennis Australia cleared him to play in the tournament because of his recent infection, saying his vaccine application was approved by two independent medical panels.

But Australia’s vaccination exemption form clearly states that a previous infection “is not a contraindication to immunisation”, the government lawyers stressed.

And “there is no such thing as an assurance of entry by a non-citizen into Australia,” they said.

Foreigners are still mostly banned from travel to Australia, and those granted entry must be fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption.

Despite Djokovic’s claim of a positive test on December 16, pictures shared by the Belgrade tennis federation showed him at a young players’ event in the city on December 17.

It reported that he had handed over cups and prizes to players. No one was wearing a mask.

Djokovic also attended a gathering on December 16, when the Serbian national postal service launched a stamp series in his honour.

“Thank you to my generous country for this rare gift! I’m humbled!!” he said on Instagram at the time.

The tennis ace’s lawyers argued that he faced an “unfair procedure”, claiming Australian border agents refused him time to rest and consult lawyers.

But the government rejected this, saying Djokovic had an opportunity to put his case to a border agent and had previously contacted his lawyers.

Since being held, his pleas to be moved to a facility where he can train for the Australian Open have fallen on deaf ears, his lawyers said.

The centre gained notoriety last year when a fire forced migrants to be evacuated, and maggots were allegedly found in the food.

– ‘Gluten-free food’ -Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said this weekend that Serbia was fully behind the player and she had held “constructive talks” with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

“We managed that he gets gluten-free food, exercise equipment, a laptop,” she told Serbia’s Pink television.

Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley on Sunday defended his organisation from criticism that it failed to warn players that a previous infection did not qualify them for entry without a Covid-19 vaccination.

“We are not going to lay the blame on anyone because there is much contradictory information,” Tiley told Channel Nine, which broadcasts the Australian Open.

A second tennis player who was headed to the Australian Open — Czech doubles specialist Renata Voracova — had her visa was cancelled after initially being allowed into the country.

She flew out of Australia on Saturday after being held in the same Melbourne centre as Djokovic.

As much of Australia tightened restrictions to battle an Omicron-fuelled wave of infections, the state of Victoria — of which Melbourne is the capital — reported 44,155 cases Sunday.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended revoking Djokovic’s visa, saying: “Rules are rules.”

The federal judge hearing Djokovic’s case warned his lawyers in a hearing Thursday that justice would move at its own pace through all necessary appeals.

“The tail won’t be wagging the dog here,” he said.