Novak Djokovic has returned to detention in Australia, after authorities ripped up his visa for a second time and declared the unvaccinated tennis superstar a threat to the public.
The world’s top-ranked tennis player had surrendered to officials in Melbourne for an interview at about 8am local time on Saturday (21:00 GMT on Friday), following a court order issued on Friday night.
Australian Border Force (ABF) officers accompanied the 34-year-old player to his lawyer’s offices for the online hearing in the Federal Court at 10:15am local time on Saturday (23:15 GMT on Friday).
His case now moves to an appeals court and a hearing is scheduled for Sunday.
Just two days before the Australian Open begins, the world number one is again fighting detention and deportation – the latest twist in a high-profile row over his COVID-19 vaccine status.
This is the second attempt by Australia’s government to deport Djokovic, one of the world’s most high-profile COVID-19 vaccine sceptics.
The 34-year-old Serbian had used a medical exemption to enter Australia earlier this month, hoping to challenge for a record 21st Grand Slam title at the Open.
Amid public outcry, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government had revoked Djokovic’s visa on arrival.
‘Gaming the system’
Many Australians – who have suffered prolonged lockdowns and border restrictions – believe Djokovic gamed the system to dodge vaccine entry requirements.
But the government was humiliated when a judge reinstated Djokovic’s visa and allowed him to remain in the country.
This time, the government has invoked exceptional – and difficult to challenge – executive powers to declare him a threat to public health and safety.
Government lawyers are expected to argue that Djokovic’s presence stirs anti-vaccine sentiment in Australia amid a tidal wave of Omicron infections.
They are also expected to say Djokovic would not comply with COVID-19 regulations, posing a risk to public health.
The tennis ace contracted COVID-19 in mid-December and, according to his own account, failed to isolate despite knowing he was positive.
Public records show he attended a stamp unveiling, youth tennis event and granted a media interview around the time he got tested and his infection was confirmed.
In a statement, immigration minister Alex Hawke said the government was “firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic”, citing “health and good order grounds” for the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa once again.
Hawke said “it was in the public interest to do so”.
The government has agreed not to deport Djokovic until the hearing is over, barrister Stephen Lloyd told an emergency late-night federal court session Friday.
Djokovic is the Australian Open’s top seed and a nine-time tournament winner. He had been practising just hours before Hawke’s decision was announced.
It is unclear if Djokovic will choose to stay and fight the case if he believes he is unable to compete in the Australian Open.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Friday accused Australia of “mistreating” the country’s biggest star and a national hero.
“If you wanted to ban Novak Djokovic from winning the 10th trophy in Melbourne why didn’t you return him immediately, why didn’t you tell him ‘it is impossible to obtain a visa’?” Vucic said on Instagram.
“Novak, we stand by you!”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison backed the decision, saying: “Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected.”
The visa cancellation effectively means Djokovic would be barred from obtaining a new Australian visa for three years, except under exceptional circumstances, ruling him out of one of the four Grand Slam tournaments during that time.
He is currently tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 Grand Slam titles each.