Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player, traveled all day Wednesday from Dubai to Australia, a journey that was supposed to begin his defense of the Australian Open singles championship.
On Thursday, he was told he would need to leave the country, following a 10-hour standoff with government officials at a Melbourne airport, where he was held in a room overnight over the validity of his visa and questions about the evidence supporting a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine. The exemption was supposed to allow Djokovic, a 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion and one of the biggest stars in sports, to compete in the Australian Open even though he has not been vaccinated.
It was not immediately clear whether Djokovic would appeal the ruling in Australia’s courts. A spokesman for the tennis star did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The chain of events represented a startling turnabout for Djokovic, who in a little more than 24 hours went from receiving special, last-minute permission to enter Australia, to boarding an intercontinental flight, to essentially being told by the prime minister of Australia that he was not welcome in the country.
Mr Djokovic’s visa has been cancelled. Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) January 5, 2022
At one point President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia even got involved, speaking with Djokovic and criticizing the Australian government for its treatment of his country’s biggest sports star.
The situation involving Djokovic, one of the most polarizing figures in tennis, was a match for any of them. It turned on a confrontation between a sports superstar and the most powerful leader in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, where government officials, citizens, the media and even some fellow players criticized the exemption, seemingly prompting the sudden shift.
The decision promises to become another flashpoint in the debate about vaccines and how the pandemic should be managed now, especially in Australia, where egalitarianism is considered a sacred principle — and where “the tennis,” as the Open is called, is also beloved by what often seems like an entire nation of sports fanatics.
In a statement Thursday, the Australian Border Force pledged to “continue to ensure that those who arrive at our border comply with our laws and entry requirements. 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.”
For Djokovic, it was the latest and arguably the most wrenching controversy in a career that has been filled with them, nearly all of which have been brought on by the behavior of a champion who can be as willful and unbending off the court as he is on it.
Djokovic has never been shy about expressing his nontraditional views of science and medicine (he once voiced support for the idea that prayer and belief could purify toxic water), and he has stated on multiple occasions his opposition to vaccine mandates, saying vaccination is a private and personal decision that should not be mandated. However, he had not revealed until this week whether he had been vaccinated.
On Tuesday, he announced on Twitter that he had received a medical exemption from the requirement that all people entering Australia be vaccinated or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. He later boarded a plane bound for Australia from Dubai.
In a statement later that day, Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, explained that players seeking an exemption had to pass muster with two panels of medical experts. The process included the redaction of personal information to ensure privacy.
Tiley said Wednesday in a television interview that 26 players had applied for an exemption and “a handful” had been granted. According to Tiley, 99 percent of the more than 3,000 people coming to Australia for the tournament were vaccinated. The handful who were granted an exemption either had a medical condition or had Covid-19 during the past six months.
Djokovic landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday. By then, he had become the central figure in a firestorm over how he had received permission to enter Australia, which is experiencing a startling rise in coronavirus cases.
The country has waged one of the most successful battles against Covid-19, but it has come at a steep price. Strict lockdowns have lasted for months. International borders were largely closed until recently. Inbound travelers had to adhere to an expensive, two-week quarantine upon arrival. For long periods, even domestic travel between states was prohibited. The country has experienced about 2,200 deaths, but since opening its borders late last year it is now dealing with more than 30,000 cases a day.
As Djokovic flew to Melbourne, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, invoked the government’s authority to deny entry to Djokovic.
“Any individual seeking to enter Australia must comply with our border requirements,” Morrison said.