Australia was set to deport tennis superstar Novak Djokovic after the Federal Court on Sunday upheld a government decision to cancel his visa on the grounds that his decision not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 posed a risk to the country.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge bench dealt a final blow to the world’s top men’s player hopes of chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open after a rollercoaster ride.
In a statement, Djokovic said he was extremely disappointed with the ruling as it meant he could not take part in the tournament, which starts on Monday.
“I respect the Court’s ruling and I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country,” he said, and wished the tournament all the best.
Chief Justice James Allsop said the court ruling was based on the lawfulness and legality of the minister’s decision in the context of the three grounds of appeal Djokovic’s legal team lodged.
“It is no part of the function of the court to decide upon the merits or wisdom of the decision,” Allsop said, adding that the three judges were unanimous in their ruling. Full reasoning behind the ruling would be released in coming days, he said.
It was not immediately clear when the government would seek to remove Djokovic.
‘KEEP BORDERS STRONG’
The Djokovic visa saga has dominated headlines around the world and fuelled a debate over the rights of people who opt to remain unvaccinated as governments take measures to protect their people from the two-year coronavirus pandemic.
The controversy became a political touchstone for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he prepares for an election due by May. His government has faced criticism for its handling of Djokovic’s visa application.
Morrison welcomed the court’s ruling, saying the decision will help “keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe.”
“It’s now time to get on with the Australian Open and get back to enjoying tennis over the summer,” he said in a statement.
Djokovic had been granted a visa to enter Australia, with a COVID-19 infection on Dec. 16 providing the basis for a medical exemption from Australia’s requirements that all visitors be vaccinated. The exemption was organised through Tennis Australia.
That exemption prompted widespread anger in Australia, which has undergone some the world’s toughest COVID-19 lockdowns and where more than 90% of adults are vaccinated. The government said recent infection alone did not meet its standards for an exemption.
But the player also had some support, especially in his native Serbia and from Serbians living in Australia.
Around 70 Djokovic fans, including young children, sang folk songs and chanted in the Federal Court plaza while they waited for the court’s ruling.
They gathered around a loudspeaker to hear the judge reading out the decision, but it took several minutes after the court adjourned before they worked out that Djokovic had lost. Two women were weeping, while others started up chants for a short while before the crowd dispersed.
“What they did today is everything except justice,” said Natasha Marjnovic, 44, a Djokovic supporter who was wiping away tears outside the court building.
“They killed a beautiful sportsman and his career and for all of us who love tennis.”
In Serbia, people have vented their anger at the treatment of their sporting hero. President Aleksandar Vucic on Friday criticised Australia’s government for what he called the “harassing and bullying (of) … the best tennis player ever.”
On Sunday, Vucic said he had spoken to the player after the court decision. “I told him we cannot wait to see him,” he told reporters. “I told him he is always welcome in Serbia.”
On the tennis circuit, fellow players had become impatient for the media circus around Djokovic to end as it had become an unwelcome distraction, casting uncertainty over the draw for the tournament.
But still several voiced sympathy for Djokovic following his legal defeat.
There was a political agenda at play here with the elections coming up which couldn’t be more obvious,” Vasek Pospisil, a Canadian tennis player, said on Twitter.
“This is not his fault.”