Australian authorities scrambled on Sunday to file a legal defence of their decision to bar entry to the tennis world number one Novak Djokovic over his Covid-19 vaccination status after a request to postpone the hearing by a few days was denied.
Djokovic is hoping to win his 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, which starts next week, but has been confined to a hotel used to accommodate asylum seekers since his arrival in the country. He is challenging the decision to cancel his visa after being stopped on arrival at Melbourne Airport early on Thursday.
Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, which was due to file its defence on Sunday, requested a delay of the hearing from Monday to Wednesday, a court representative told Reuters. The application was rejected, according to a ruling on the federal court’s website.
A vocal opponent of vaccine mandates, Djokovic has declined to reveal his vaccination status or reason for seeking a medical exemption from Australia’s vaccine rules. He broke his silence on Saturday with a legal challenge, saying he had been granted an exemption due to contracting – and recovering from – the virus in December.
The visa saga has rocked the tennis world, caused tensions between Serbia and Australia and become a flashpoint for opponents of vaccine mandates around the world.
Australia says its health department notified Tennis Australia – the governing body overseeing the Australian Open – in November that a recent Covid-19 infection was not necessarily grounds for medical exemption, as it is elsewhere.
Djokovic’s lawsuit says the Department of Home Affairs wrote to him this month to say he had satisfied the requirements to enter the country.
Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, said in his first media interview since the furore began that his organisation had spoken with federal and state officials for months to ensure the safe passage of players.
"Primarily because there is (so) much contradictory information the whole time, every single week we were talking to Home Affairs, we were talking to all parts of government to ensure that… we were doing the right thing and (following) the right process with these exemptions," Mr Tiley said.
"The conflicting information, and the contradictory information we received, was because of the changing environment. We are in a challenging environment."
Djokovic’s lawyers will have up to two hours to present their case on Monday morning, while the government department gets two hours to present its defence in the afternoon, the Federal Circuit and Family Court ruled.
Djokovic's lawyers will have up to two hours to present their case on Monday morning
Credit: Mark Baker
A spokesman for the Department of Home Affairs was not immediately available for comment about its legal defence.
Greg Hunt, Australia’s health minister, declined to comment when asked about the furore on Sunday, but noted that several other people involved in the tournament had also had their visas revoked.
Simon Birmingham, the finance minister, said without referring directly to Djokovic that "there’s a clear difference between visas and entry requirements" and "entry requirements… sit over and above the visa conditions".
The Czech tennis player Renata Voracova, who was detained in the same detention hotel as Djokovic and had her visa revoked after issues with her vaccine exemption, left the country without challenging her status, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.
A Serbian priest conducts a service for protesters outside the hotel where Djokovic is staying
Credit: WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)/WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)
Djokovic’s situation has drawn an unlikely crowd to the modest Melbourne hotel, which until this month was best known for media reports about asylum seeker occupants claiming they were served food containing maggots.
Anti-vaccine protesters, refugee advocates and fans of Djokovic have converged outside the building, which is under police guard.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said Djokovic had been given gluten-free food, tools to exercise and a SIM card to stay in contact with the outside world.
"It’s a positive tone from the Australian side. The Serbian government is ready to provide all the guarantees necessary for Novak to be allowed to enter Australia, the Serbian president is also involved," Brnabic said.