MELBOURNE, Australia — It was deja vu for Novak Djokovic on Saturday as the tennis star was detained for a second time by Australian authorities and placed back in the very same hotel he’d triumphantly left just this week.
The strange scene of the world’s top-ranked men’s player again being escorted into a hotel housing asylum seekers came on the eve of a court hearing to decide whether Djokovic will be deported or allowed to remain in the country to compete in the Australian Open.
A day earlier, Australia’s immigration minister had canceled Djokovic’s visa for the second time on the grounds that the unvaccinated tennis player’s presence might incite anti-vaccine sentiment Down Under.
That decision, and Djokovic’s detention on Saturday, have thrown the Serbian star’s pursuit of tennis history into serious doubt and threatened to upend the Grand Slam tournament, which begins Monday.
As Djokovic’s opponents spent the morning preparing for their first matches, he spent it under guard, working with his attorneys for Sunday’s decisive showdown.
And as journalists scrambled around Melbourne in pursuit of a glimpse of Djokovic, the tennis world reacted with a mix of shock, anger, shrugs and schadenfreude to news of his detention.
“It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players [in] history,” said Rafael Nadal, who, like Djokovic, is hoping to make history by winning his 21st Grand Slam in Melbourne. “But there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event.”
“I feel it has taken away a little bit from the great tennis that’s been happening over this summer in Australia,” added Emma Raducanu, the reigning US Open women’s champion.
But Australian Nick Kyrgios, who has clashed with Djokovic in the past, said authorities were “nitpicking” with the No. 1 men’s player.
“Either send him out early, or let him play,” Kyrgios told The Age, a Melbourne newspaper. “Now I feel it’s getting a bit embarrassing. I feel it’s not fair on him now. Preparing for a grand slam is hard enough.”
The saga began almost two weeks ago, when Djokovic — who has expressed opposition to coronavirus vaccines — posted on Instagram that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission.”
The news didn’t go down well in Australia, a highly vaccinated country that is in the midst of a severe spike in coronavirus infections. When he arrived at the Melbourne airport on Jan. 5, Australian Border Force officers decided his medical exemption was valid to play in the tournament but not to enter the country. They detained him for eight hours, canceled his visa, and then put him in the Park Hotel, where asylum seekers have complained about conditions.
Just as it appeared Djokovic would be deported, a federal judge ruled that Border Force officials had mistreated Djokovic and ordered him released, setting off jubilant celebrations from the hundreds of supporters — Serbs, tennis fans, and anti-vaccine advocates — who had gathered outside his hotel for four days.
But the government threatened to again cancel his visa, and Immigration Minister Alex Hawke followed through on Friday evening, reigniting the legal battle and setting off a flurry of rushed court hearings.
Court documents released Saturday laid out the arguments that are likely to collide in the Sunday morning hearing, which will start at 9:30 a.m. in Melbourne.
In a document outlining his reasons for canceling Djokovic’s visa, Hawke dropped the argument about the validity of the tennis player’s medical exemption, saying he didn’t even read the material Djokovic submitted regarding his recent covid infection — the grounds for his exemption — because “I’m not medically trained.”
The minister also conceded that Djokovic’s recent infection meant he posed a “negligible” risk of infecting others.
Instead, Hawke noted that Djokovic is “a high profile unvaccinated individual, who has indicated publicly that he is opposed to becoming vaccinated against covid-19.”
“I consider that Mr. Djokovic’s presence in Australia may pose a health risk to the Australian community, in that his presence in Australia may foster anti-vaccination sentiment” that would lead to more people getting covid and increased pressure on the hospital system, Hawke argued.
Hawke also pointed to Djokovic’s decision to hold an interview and photo shoot with a French newspaper in Serbia after testing positive last month. Djokovic has apologized for his conduct.
“Given Mr. Djokovic’s high profile status and position as a role model in the sporting or broader community, his ongoing presence in Australia may foster similar disregard for the precautionary requirements following receipt of a positive covid-19 test,” he wrote.
At a hearing on Friday night, however, Djokovic’s attorney called Hawke’s argument “patently irrational” because it only considered the impact of the tennis star remaining in Australia and not his deportation.
“The minister only considers the potential for exciting anti-vax sentiment in the event that [Djokovic] is present” in Australia, Nick Wood argued. “The minister gives no consideration whatsoever to what effect [deportation] may have on anti-vax sentiment and indeed on public order.”
Canceling Djokovic’s visa would lead to the “mandatory removal of this man of good standing who has a medical contraindication to a vaccine, who has complied with the law, who poses a negligible risk to others, being forced out of Australia,” Wood said.
As part of an affidavit in support of Djokovic, his lawyers included a blurry photo of a local newspaper’s online poll asking readers whether the tennis player should be allowed to play in the Open.
At the time of the screenshot, 60 percent of respondents said “yes,” including the member of the legal team who took the photo.
Other polls, however, have shown the majority of Australians are against Djokovic being allowed to stay in the country.
One thing that did go Djokovic’s way Saturday was federal judge David O’Callaghan’s decision that Sunday’s hearing would be heard by a full court consisting of him and two other judges. Djokovic’s legal team had been hoping for a full court, which makes it harder for the losing side to appeal, because they don’t want to drag out proceedings or the tennis player’s detention.
But legal experts warn that the tennis player’s attorneys have much less room to knock down this visa cancelation than they did the first time around. Djokovic’s team will have to persuade the judges that Hawke somehow erred when deciding that the Serbian might incite anti-vaccine sentiment.
One thing that could work in their favor is that anti-vaccine sentiment isn’t hard to find in Melbourne, where months of protests have occasionally turned violent.
On Saturday, as Djokovic was hunkered down with his attorneys, several hundred people marched through the city’s streets with signs saying “My Body, My Choice” and “Hands Off Our Kids,” a reference to Australia recently making coronavirus vaccines available to children between the age of 5 and 11.
Though a few people wore Serbian flags, the demonstration — which had been planned for at least a week, according to police and protesters — didn’t have much to do with Djokovic.
“This isn’t for Novak,” said Annette Davies, 53. “This is about vaccine mandates.”
As Border Force officers took Djokovic out of his attorneys’ offices and back to the Park Hotel, the protesters were across town, marching and chanting for “freedom.” But it was their freedom, not Novak’s.
“We are here to support the Australian people,” said Scott Taylor, an Australian Defense Force veteran marching in camouflage fatigues. “Novak Djokovic is a distraction.”