By ROD McGUIRK
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic was kicked out of Australia on Sunday after losing an attempt to stay in the country to defend his Australian Open title despite not having a COVID shot. -19.
A masked Djokovic was pictured in a Melbourne airport lounge with two black-uniformed government officials before he left for Dubai. It’s unclear where it will go from there. Among the possibilities are Spain, Monaco or his native Serbia, where he has an almost iconic status and would likely be welcomed as a hero.
The No.1-ranked tennis star has spent the past 10 days at the center of a dizzying drama over his vaccination status that has polarized opinion around the world and struck a chord in Australia, where coronavirus cases increase.
The 34-year-old said he was “extremely disappointed” by a court ruling on Sunday which led to his expulsion. But he added that he respected the decision and would cooperate with the authorities.
The saga began when Djokovic was granted an exemption from strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and Tennis Australia in order to play at the Australian Open. This exemption, based on evidence that he has recently recovered from COVID-19, apparently allowed him to receive a visa to enter Australia. But when he arrived, border officials said the exemption was invalid and decided to deport him.
The ensuing back-and-forth raised questions about whether Djokovic had been unfairly given special treatment or unfairly singled out due to his celebrity status and saw many complaining that the drawn-out battle at least made him look bad. Australia.
A court initially ruled on procedural grounds that Djokovic could stay, but Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, who has broad powers, later decided to deport him. As well as not being inoculated against the coronavirus, Djokovic is a vocal skeptic of vaccines, and the government has said his presence could stoke anti-vaccine sentiments.
Three Federal Court judges unanimously upheld the Minister of Immigration’s decision.
Djokovic said he was “uncomfortable” that the focus was on him since his visa was first canceled on January 6.
“Hopefully now we can all focus on the game and the tournament that I love,” he said. “I will now take some time to rest and recover, before making any further comments beyond that.”
The decision dashed Djokovic’s hopes of winning a record 21st Grand Slam title. He is currently tied with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam singles trophies in men’s tennis.
A deportation order could also ban him from Australia for three years, which would bar the player from the tournament he has won nine times in coming years.
Just as the case has always been, the decision to expel Djokovic has divided opinion.
In Serbia, where Djokovic received overwhelming support, President Aleksandar Vucic said the hearing was “a farce with a lot of lies”.
“They think they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, and they actually humiliated themselves. If you said that the one who has not been vaccinated does not have the right to enter, Novak would not come or would be vaccinated,” Vucic told reporters.
Back in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed the decision as one “to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe”.
Hawke, the immigration minister, said these strong border policies “are also fundamental to protecting Australia’s social cohesion which continues to strengthen despite the pandemic”.
But opposition spokeswoman for the home affairs portfolio, Kristina Keneally, said Djokovic was being deported for what he said and did publicly abroad before the government granted him a visa in November .
“This mess is not a failure of our laws. This is a failure of Morrison’s skill and leadership,” Keneally tweeted.
The response to the pandemic has become politically charged ahead of the election, due in May, when Morrison’s conservative coalition will seek another term.
Infection rates have soared across much of Australia since December, when Morrison’s government eased what had been some of the Democratic world’s toughest restrictions on international travel.
Concern over the spike in infections loomed over Djokovic’s case. Hawke called the top-ranked player “a talisman of a community of anti-vaccination sentiments.”
The player has actually become an unwitting hero of the anti-vax movement. On Sunday, a protester at a rally in Amsterdam against the Dutch government’s virus lockdown held up a sign supporting Djokovic.
Hawke’s attorney, Stephen Lloyd, also noted that Djokovic has “a history of ignoring COVID safety measures.”
Lloyd cited the example of Djokovic giving an interview to a French journalist last month while infected with COVID-19 and removing his mask during a photoshoot. Djokovic admitted that the interview was an error in judgement.
The minister canceled the visa on the grounds that Djokovic’s presence in Australia could pose a risk to the health and ‘good order’ of the Australian public and ‘may be counterproductive to vaccination efforts by others in Australia’ .
But the decision did not please some.
Vasek Pospisil, a Canadian who won the Wimbledon men’s doubles title in 2014 and who worked with Djokovic to form an association to represent the players, tweeted: “There was a political agenda at play here with the (Australian) elections ) to come that couldn’t be more obvious. It’s not his fault. It did not force its way into the country and did not “make its own rules”; he was ready to stay home.
Pospisil wrote that Djokovic would not have tried to go to Australia at all and would have “been home with his family” had he not received the medical exemption.
Because Djokovic withdrew from the tournament after Monday’s schedule was published, he was replaced on the pitch by what is known as a “lucky loser” – a player who loses in the qualifying tournament but enters the main draw due to the exit of another player before the competition started.
That player is Italian Salvatore Caruso, who is ranked 150th in the world.
Associated Press writers John Pye in Melbourne, Australia, Howard Fendrich in Washington DC and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia contributed to this report.
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