MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic woke up on Tuesday to his first morning outside immigration detention in Australia, almost a week after he flew into the country – and into an international furore over his COVID-19 vaccination status.
However, the world number one still faces the threat of being detained by the federal government for a second time and deported, despite Monday’s court ruling quashing the government’s earlier decision to cancel his visa.
Djokovic was back in training hours after winning that court challenge, thanking the judge who released him from immigration detention and saying he remained focused on trying to win a record 21st tennis major at next week’s Australian Open.
“I am pleased and grateful that the judge overturned my visa cancellation,” Djokovic wrote on Twitter, where he posted a photograph of himself on court at Melbourne Park after a chaotic few days.
“Despite all that has happened I want to stay and try to compete at the Australian Open.”
Djokovic’s plight drew international attention, creating a political spat between Canberra and Belgrade and fuelling heated debates over mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies.
John Alexander, a member of the coalition government’s Liberal Party and a former professional tennis player, said it would be a mistake for Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to now use his discretionary powers to deport the Serbian player.
To do so would “diminish” the status of the Australian Open, Alexander said.
“We had previously been the poor cousin of the four events,” he said. “We’ve got a lot going for us, but we need to treat it carefully.”
Hawke’s office said late on Monday the minister was still considering whether he would use his discretion under the Migration Act to cancel Djokovic’s visa for a second time. Spokespeople for the minister did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Tuesday.
The ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, applauded the court ruling, saying the dispute was “damaging on all fronts, including for Novak’s well-being and preparation for the Australian Open.”
The ATP said it supported Australia’s stringent vaccination regulations but added the situation highlighted the need for clearer understanding and communication of the rules. It said it strongly recommends all players get vaccinated and noted that 97% of the top 100 players were vaccinated.
Judge Anthony Kelly said he quashed the decision to block Djokovic’s entry because the player had not been given enough time to respond to it.
Officials at Melbourne’s airport, where Djokovic was detained when he landed late on Wednesday, had reneged on an agreement to give him until 8:30 a.m. to speak to Tennis Australia and lawyers, Kelly said.
Djokovic, who has long opposed mandatory vaccination, told border officials he was unvaccinated and had contracted COVID-19 twice, according to a transcript of the interview.
Kelly told the court it appeared Djokovic had received the medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination on the basis that he had contracted the virus last month, and had presented evidence of the infection before travelling and on arrival.
Kelly’s ruling did not directly address the issue of whether the exemption on the grounds of an infection in the past six months was valid, which the government had disputed.
The Australian Open begins on Jan. 17. Djokovic has won the tournament, one of tennis’ four Grand Slams, for the last three years and nine times in all.
Spain’s Rafa Nadal, who is tied on 20 majors with Djokovic and Switzerland’s Roger Federer, called the fraught build-up to the tournament a “circus”.
“Justice has spoken and has said that he has the right to participate in the Australian Open and I think it is the fairest decision,” Nadal told Spanish radio station Onda Cero.
Czech player Renata Voracova, who left Australia after her visa was also cancelled, told Reuters she welcomed the decision to let him stay: “Hopefully he can play. Because that is what we went there for: to play tennis and not be part of any inside games.”
However, former American player turned pundit Pam Shriver warned on Twitter the controversy may not be over: “If he plays the booing will be deafening.”
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Jane Wardell; editing by Richard Pullin)