MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The prime ministers of Australia and Serbia on Tuesday discussed Novak Djokovic's precarious visa after the top-ranked Serbian tennis star won a court battle to compete in the Australian Open but still faces the threat of deportation because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19.
The deportation drama has polarized opinions and elicited strong support for the 20-time Grand Slam winner in his native Serbia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Serbian counterpart, Ana Brnabić, agreed in their telephone conversation to keep in touch over the 34-year-old’s disputed visa, Morrison's office said.
“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. “They both agreed to stay in contact on the issue.”
Brnabić asked Morrison to ensure the tennis star was treated with dignity, public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia reported.
“The (Serbian) prime minister especially emphasized the importance of the conditions for training and physical preparation for the upcoming competition, considering that Novak Djokovic was not allowed to train in the previous days, and the tournament in Melbourne starts this weekend,” RTS reported.
Djokovic was on a Melbourne tennis court training within hours of his court victory.
“I’m pleased and grateful that the Judge overturned my visa cancellation. Despite all that has happened, I want to stay and try to compete @AustralianOpen. I remain focused on that,” Djokovic tweeted just after midnight on Tuesday.
“I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans,” he added.
But immigration minister Alex Hawke is considering exercising his power to deport the tennis star under separate legislation.
“The minister is currently considering the matter and the process remains ongoing,” Hawke’s office said in a statement.
A border official canceled Djokovic’s visa at Melbourne’s airport last Thursday, hours after he arrived in Australia to compete in the tournament.
Djokovic was confined to a quarantine hotel room in Melbourne until Monday, when a judge restored his visa, citing procedural errors by the border officials at the airport.
The unvaccinated 34-year-old had been given a medical exemption by Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer, from its vaccination rules to compete because he was infected with COVID-19 last month.
But the Australian Border Force declined to allow him an exemption from national vaccination rules for incoming non-citizens.
It said an infection in the previous six months was only a ground for a vaccine exemption in cases in which the coronavirus caused severe illness.
There also are new questions over Djokovic’s application to enter the country after documents released by Federal Circuit Court revealed he told authorities he had not traveled in the 14 days before his flight to Australia.
Monte Carlo-based Djokovic touched down in Melbourne just before midnight on Wednesday, answering “no” to the question about previous travel on his Australian Travel Declaration form.
But the reigning Australian Open champ was filmed playing tennis in the streets of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, on Christmas Day, and training in Spain on Dec. 31 — both dates within the 14-day window.
The declaration notes that giving false or misleading information is a serious offense, and civil penalties are also available.
Djokovic told border officers that Tennis Australia completed the declaration on his behalf, but it was noted by the officer who canceled his visa that the sporting body would have facilitated that “based on information the visa holder provided.”
Since Djokovic’s visa was canceled, Czech tennis player Renata Voráčová and an unnamed European tennis official have been deported for similar reasons.
Morrison's conservative government has blamed the debacle on Tennis Australia, which ministers accuse of misleading players about Australia’s vaccine requirements.
But newspapers have reported that Tennis Australia had pleaded with the Department of Home Affairs to check the visa paperwork of Djokovic and other players before they boarded planes. The department did not.
The opposition home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, blamed the confusion over the tennis star’s visa on a lack of planning by the government.
It should have been clear about whether it was right for Djokovic to enter the country to play in the Australian Open when it initially granted him the visa, Keneally said.
“If (he) gets deported it does incredible damage to Australia. If he gets to stay it does incredible damage to our tough border laws and is a real insult to the Australians who did the hard work of lockdowns and vaccination,” Keneally told the Seven Network television.
Keneally said the Djokovic saga made Australia “look like a bit of a joke” on the world stage.
Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state which is hosting the Australian Open, said the federal government had changed its border rules in recent months.
“When we talked about exemptions previously, you would recall that Minister Hawke had said that it was his expectation that if you weren’t double vaxxed, you wouldn’t get into the country whether you’re playing tennis or doing anything else,” said Andrews, who like Keneally is a member of the center-left Labor Party.
“Turned out that wasn’t the Commonwealth government’s position and that they have been letting people in who haven’t been double vaxxed,” Andrews added.