Australian authorities barred tennis star Novak Djokovic from entering the country, canceling his visa and likely keeping him from defending his Australian Open title, officials said.
Australians had been furious about news that Djokovic had been given “an exemption permission” to travel to play in the tournament amid a surge in Covid-19 cases in the country.
The world’s top-ranked male player, who has refused to reveal if he is vaccinated against Covid, wrote on social media Tuesday that he had the exemption permission and was headed “Down Under.”
The statement ended months of uncertainty about his participation because of Australia’s strict Covid vaccination requirements.
But when Djokovic landed in Melbourne on Wednesday, the Serbian star was not allowed to leave the airport and early Thursday morning local time he was told to leave.
“The Australian Border Force will continue to ensure that those who arrive at our border comply with our laws and entry requirements,” the agency announced.
“The ABF can confirm that Mr. Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently canceled.”
The ABF added: “Noncitizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa canceled will be detained and removed from Australia.”
Among the most prominent critics was a visibly angry Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said on Wednesday that Djokovic should not get special treatment to enter the country, which has had some of the world’s toughest border restrictions and only started to allow some international travel in November.
“He must provide acceptable proof that he cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons to be able to access the same travel arrangements as fully vaccinated travelers,” said Morrison at a news conference Wednesday. “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,” he added.
Morrison’s rhetorical volleys sparked a diplomatic back-and-forth between Canberra and Belgrade.
“I’ve just finished my telephone conversation with Novak Djokovic,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic wrote on Instagram.
“I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately.”
Vucic made Djokovic’s status with the Australian Open a matter of national pride.
“In line with all norms of international law, Serbia will fight for Novak, truth and justice. Novak is strong, as we all know,” the Serbian president wrote.
Morrison had said earlier in the day that the decision to grant Djokovic an exemption was in the hands of the government of Victoria, the state where the tournament will be held.
Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government said Djokovic was one of a “handful” of successful applicants among 26 people who sought exemptions from being vaccinated, but had not received any special treatment in the anonymous application process, according to Reuters.
The Victoria state government has mandated that all players, staff and fans attending the Australian Open, set to begin on Jan. 17, must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted.
It was not immediately clear what exemption Djokovic was claiming, or whether the central government would actually intervene in this case. The state’s head and the country’s Department of Home Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
The Australian Open will take place in Melbourne, which spent more time under Covid-19 lockdowns than most other cities in the world.
Fellow player Jamie Murray of the U.K., ranked in the Top 20 in doubles competition, seemed to question Djokovic’s exemption.
“I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” he said, according to Reuters. “But well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete.”
Australians, meanwhile, reacted to Djokovic’s post that he was on the way to their country with anger on social media.
“It’s unbelievable that you get a ‘special medical panel’ exemption to play tennis here when thousands of Australians were denied seeing loved ones, dying family members etc. over the last two years,” Alan Birrell wrote on Twitter.
If Djokovic were allowed to play, many fans said they would tune out of the tournament.
“We’ve all done the right thing, we’ve all gone out and got our jabs and our boosters,” Christine Wharton, of Melbourne, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I think it’s an absolute disgrace and I won’t be watching it.”
Djokovic tested positive for Covid in June 2020 after he took part in an exhibition series he organized in Serbia and Croatia. He was criticized at the time for organizing the tournament and bringing in players from other countries amid the pandemic.
Once a champion of a “zero-Covid strategy“ of managing the pandemic, Australia, which has a population of 25.7 million, has recorded a total of over 612,000 cases. More than 91 percent of Australian’s aged 16 and over have received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.
But cases have exploded in the country in recent weeks, from more than 1,000 a day in early December to over 64,000 on Wednesday. That’s led to long lines at publicly funded testing centers.
Djokovic has won the Australian Open nine times.