Novak Djokovic won his appeal to stay in Australia on Monday after the country’s authorities barred entry to the tennis star over his Covid-19 vaccination status.
At a virtual hearing at the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia in Melbourne on Monday, Judge Anthony Kelly said Djokovic must be released from immigration detention within 30 minutes of the order being made.
The battle waged by the men’s world No. 1 was seen as a high-profile example of the broader struggle over vaccinations and government restrictions to combat the coronavirus. It came after fury in Australia, which is battling a new wave of infections driven by the omicron variant, over Djokovic’s claim of a vaccine exemption allowing him to compete in this month’s tournament and defend his Grand Slam title.
The judge noted that the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa was made by a delegate for the home affairs minister at 7:42 a.m. on Thursday, even though Djokovic had been given until 8:30 a.m. to respond to the notification that his visa was in danger of being canceled.
“If the applicant had had until 8:30 a.m., he could have consulted others and made submissions to the delegate about why his visa should not be canceled,” Kelly said in reading out an agreement between the government and Djokovic’s lawyers.
An earlier court order had allowed Djokovic to leave the Park Hotel where he is being detained so he could attend the virtual hearing with his legal team.
The Serbian tennis icon was hoping to defend his Australian Open title, and his participation, a week before the season’s first major tennis tournament is set to begin, is now again possible. But the government says the immigration minister could still use his personal power to cancel Djokovic’s visa again.
The furor surrounding Djokovic, 34, began when he announced on Instagram last Tuesday that he had been granted “an exemption permission” for the Covid-19 vaccination, which would allow him to fly to Australia to take part in the tournament.
While he was in the air, questions were raised about exactly how and why Djokovic was granted the medical exemption, amid a worsening epidemic situation in Australia. The country’s total coronavirus infections surpassed 1 million on Monday, with more than half of them recorded in the past week, Reuters reported.
Australia’s Covid-19 rules stipulate that incoming travelers must have had two shots of an approved vaccine, or must have an exemption with a genuine medical reason to avoid quarantine. All Australian Open players, staff, officials and fans also need to be fully vaccinated to enter the tournament venue.
Australia has had some of the world’s toughest border restrictions and only started to allow some international travel in November.
Upon landing in Melbourne late on Wednesday, Djokovic was denied entry after his visa was canceled for his failing to provide appropriate evidence that he met entry requirements.
Djokovic has so far not revealed his vaccination status.
In papers filed to the court on Saturday, his lawyers argued that he had been granted an exemption because he had contracted — and recovered from — the virus in December.
However, that claim was subjected to more scrutiny after photos and video of Djokovic emerged on social media, showing him attending public events without a mask on the day his lawyers said he tested positive and the day after the diagnosis.
It is not known whether Djokovic was aware that he had tested positive when he attended the events in the photographs.
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In a court filing ahead of the hearing on Monday, government lawyers said the Australian government had not given Djokovic an assurance that a medical exemption he said he had to enter the country without having received a Covid-19 vaccination would be accepted.
At the hearing, Kelly questioned why the home affairs delegate had not accepted Djokovic’s medical exemption, which was reviewed by two medical panels.
“The point I’m somewhat agitated about is, ‘What more could this man have done?’” the judge said.
On Saturday, Australian authorities sought to delay the proceedings until Wednesday, but their bid was rejected. In its court filing, the government said that if Djokovic won the case, it would still have the power to cancel his visa and detain him again.
If Immigration Minister Alex Hawke were to remove Djokovic from Australia, the tennis star would be ineligible to return to the country for three years. That decision could also be appealed.
Kelly told government lawyer Christopher Tran that he expected to be “fully informed in advance” if further court proceedings were necessary, saying “the stakes have now risen rather than receded.”
Djokovic has won nine of his 20 major titles at the Australian Open, and shares the men’s record for most majors with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
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The drama unfolding around Djokovic has rocked the tennis world and created tensions between Serbia and Australia. It has also become a flashpoint for opponents of vaccine mandates around the world.
Melbourne residents have had to endure months of severe restrictions on their movements since the pandemic started, and Djokovic’s exemption has caused outrage among residents and stirred allegations that the tennis star may have received preferential treatment.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been vocal about Djokovic’s case and said Thursday, “No one is above rules,” and “there are no special cases.”
Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has thrown national support behind Djokovic, saying Wednesday in a post on Instagram that “the whole of Serbia is with him.”
In Serbia on Saturday, Djokovic’s family held a rally in support of him in Belgrade for the third successive day, and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic assured him of her government’s support over his visa battle.
His Australian fans, many draped in Serbian flags and wearing “Novak” T-shirts, also rallied around him outside a Melbourne hotel where the tennis star has spent four days in immigration detention while awaiting his appeal hearing. The hotel is also used to house refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom have been there for years.
His family has accused the Australian government of holding him “prisoner” at the hotel. The country’s authorities, however, rejected those claims, saying the player was free to leave Australia at any time.
Djokovic thanked his supporters in an Instagram post on Friday as he celebrated Orthodox Christmas in detention. “I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated,” the player said.
Other players who were granted medical exemptions by Australia’s authorities have also been scrutinized and swept up in the furor around Djokovic. Renata Voráčová, a 38-year-old Czech doubles player, was detained in the same hotel over a vaccine dispute before leaving Australia on Saturday, the Associated Press reported.
The Australian Open begins on Jan. 17. Djokovic is the defending champion and has won the Australian Open men’s singles title nine times.