An alleged visa bungle has thrown Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open defence into fresh doubt amid claims he attempted to enter Melbourne using invalid documents.
According to reports in Australia, the Australian Border Force (ABF) contacted the Victorian government on Wednesday after learning of an issue with the visa submitted by Djokovic’s team before he landed at Melbourne Airport at around 12.30pm UK time.
Djokovic flew to Australia this week after he received a medical exemption from having to be vaccinated against coronavirus, but was questioned on arrival by border officials over his documentation.
According to Australian media, the world number one’s team submitted the wrong type of visa that does not permit medical exemptions for being unvaccinated. The alleged error was realised just hours before he touched down in Melbourne.
Officials were said to have sought formal backing for his application in order to grant him entry, with the state’s acting sports minister, Jaala Pulford, confirming on Twitter that such a request had been rejected.
She posted: “The Federal Government has asked if we will support Novak Djokovic’s visa application to enter Australia. We will not be providing Novak Djokovic with individual visa application support to participate in the 2022 Australian Open Grand Slam.
“We’ve always been clear on two points: visa approvals are a matter for the Federal Government, and medical exemptions are a matter for doctors.”
The ABF reportedly is able to use its discretion to grant entry to the country in such cases but allowing Djokovic to do so without a valid visa would compound the growing outrage over the decision to award him a medical exemption to play at the year’s first grand slam.
Djokovic was already facing a backlash from fellow players – as well as the Australian public and prime minister Scott Morrison – after announcing that he was travelling to Melbourne on a medical exemption, rather than undergoing vaccination like the vast majority of the field.
The 20-time Grand Slam winner was warned by Morrison he would be “on the next plane home” if he could not prove he had a genuine exemption, having received permission to play in the Australian Open despite ongoing questions over his vaccination status.
Wednesday’s warning, which followed a meeting between Morrison and state heads over the rising Covid-19 numbers, came as a frosty reception awaited Djokovic upon his arrival Down Under. Furious members of the public voiced their opposition to his presence in Melbourne, having spent months in locked down conditions throughout the pandemic.
The Association of Tennis Professionals said last week that 95 of the world’s top 100 had been vaccinated against Covid. But Djokovic appears to be an exception. Now the conversation around Australia’s player lounges will surround the unexpected decision to let him into the country anyway.
Unsurprisingly, there was a feeling on Tuesday that the world No 1 might be receiving preferential treatment on account of his huge profile and standing within the game. “I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” said the British doubles specialist Jamie Murray.
The situation took a turn on Wednesday when Morrison warned Djokovic he would be refused entry if he could not prove he has a genuine medical exemption.
“If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever.”
Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews had earlier appeared to suggest that the federal government could overturn Djokovic’s eligibility to enter the country, unless he proved on arrival the medical grounds that had led to his Australian Open exemption.
That was quickly followed by reports of an “issue” emerging with the Acting Australian Border Force Commissioner around Djokovic’s Australian Travel Declaration, with a report from the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation suggesting his vaccination status could result in the Serbian being blocked from entering the country even though he was already on his way to Melbourne.
In a statement titled “Australia’s border rules apply to everyone”, Andrews said: “Any individual seeking to enter Australia must comply with our strict border requirements.
“While the Victorian Government and Tennis Australia may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth Government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border.
“Since Dec 15 2021 fully vaccinated eligible visa holders can travel to Australia without needing to apply for a travel exemption, and enter eligible states and territories quarantine free.
“If an arriving individual is not vaccinated, they must provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons to be able to access the same travel arrangement as fully vaccinated travellers.
“Australian Border Force will continue to ensure that those who arrive at our border comply with our strict border requirements.”
Djokovic has also been urged to reveal the details behind his medical exemption, with Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley calling on the Serbian to explain why he has been allowed to compete.
“I think it’ll certainly be helpful if Novak was to explain the condition for which he sought an exemption and he got the exemption,” he said. “But ultimately, it’s up to him.”
After weeks of debate over Djokovic’s presence – or otherwise – at the Australian Open, the news finally emerged via his own social media channels on Tuesday morning. “I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the Christmas break,” he wrote in his post, “and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!”
A slap in the face for many Melburnians
While Djokovic’s tone was triumphant, he is likely to experience a chilly welcome in Melbourne – a city which has taken a tough line on lockdowns. No ordinary member of the public is allowed into Melbourne Park – the venue for the upcoming Australian Open – without evidence of vaccination. Some will surely quote James Merlino, the deputy state premier for Victoria, who said last month that “Medical exemptions are just that – it’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players.”
This issue will rumble on throughout the coming month, and indeed the coming season, given that the Australian Open is unlikely to be the last tournament to insist on vaccinations or carefully scrutinised exemptions.
The mechanics of this process are complex. Soon after Djokovic’s post, Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government found themselves contradicting each other over who was ultimately responsible. This back-and-forth underlined the likely unpopularity of the decision, which many Melburnians will see as a slap in the face after spending so many months under restrictive anti-Covid protocols.
So how did Djokovic get admitted to Australia? It seems unlikely that he – or anyone else – will reveal the nature of his exemption. But the most likely explanation must be that he has contracted Covid for a second time at some point in the last six months, having previously caught it during his ill-fated Adria Tour event in the summer of 2020.
This would negate the need for vaccination, according to rules published in November by one of two independent medical panels involved in the decision. All you need to achieve this outcome is a certificate from an accredited doctor in your home country. It seems unlikely that Djokovic has cited an “acute medical condition” – the other main route to an exemption – given that he won three of the four majors last year.
Jamie Murray wasn’t the only player to sound sceptical on Tuesday. When the subject came up in a press conference involving Australia’s Alex de Minaur, he replied “I just think it’s just very interesting, that’s all I’m going to say. But, hey, it is what it is.”
Also on Tuesday, it emerged that the two-time Australian Open quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren is not travelling to Melbourne because of the tournament’s vaccination policy. Sandgren then received a message on social media from fellow American player Tommy Paul, asking whether he would be seeking an exemption. “Not quite the same pull [as Djokovic],” he replied.