Novak Djokovic Beats Australia (for Now)

Score one for the anti-vaxxer. Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

An Australian judge ruled on Monday that Serbian tennis anti-hero Novak Djokovic had been unjustly detained by federal authorities and freed him from detention — for the time being. After the decision, the vaccine skeptic and defending Australian Open champion almost immediately repaired to Rod Laver Arena, the tournament’s center court, where he is now allowed to practice.

But the farcical saga is still not over. The Australian government, which had seemingly scrambled to cancel Djokovic’s visa after his medical exemption provoked widespread backlash, might still oust him from the country. Melbourne newspaper The Age reports that now it’s up to the country’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, who could exercise his power under Australia’s Migration Act to cancel Djokovic’s visa.

Doing so will be a heavier lift after the hearing in which Judge Anthony Kelly sided with the World No. 1. In his appeal, Djokovic’s lawyers claimed that Australian immigration authorities “radically misconstrued” advice from the nation’s immunization advisory authority when they canceled his visa, ignoring guidance that suggests a “PCR-confirmed COVID infection within the last six months justifies temporary exemption for all COVID-19 vaccines.” His attorneys argued that the 20-time Grand Slam winner wasn’t given enough time to properly respond to his abrupt visa cancellation, a point Australian authorities conceded and that Judge Kelly made central to his ruling. “The point I’m somewhat agitated about is, What more could this man have done?” Kelly said.

Djokovic, who was opposed to the idea of a COVID vaccine before they were even developed, had been forced to stay at the Park Hotel in central Melbourne, where a group of 30 asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat have been detained for over a year.

After the decision was announced, police pepper-sprayed a contingent of boisterous Djokovic supporters who gathered to celebrate outside his lawyer’s office.

Meanwhile, in Belgrade, Djokovic’s family held a press conference in which they cast him as a hero for our times.

“He wouldn’t allow anyone to bring him to his knees,” Djokovic’s father said. “He is a mental giant, a fantastic young man who has never hurt anyone, he has always been in good relations with all and always tried to help. But obviously the fact he was from a small, poor country was not liked by some powerful people … They didn’t like that someone from a small country could be the best in their bourgeois sport.”

And Djokovic’s mother said, “This is the biggest victory in his career, bigger than all of his Grand Slams.”

The family was less eager to discuss reports that following the positive COVID test Djokovic had cited to gain his exemption, he had attended events in Serbia sans mask.

The peculiar saga began when Djokovic, the No. 1–ranked men’s tennis player in the world, arrived at a Melbourne airport on Thursday with the belief that he would be allowed to enter the country with strict coronavirus travel protections on the merit of a positive COVID test within the past six months. Tennis Australia, the nation’s governing body for the sport, provided him with a last-minute “exemption permission,” as he put it, though the Australian government has claimed he was never guaranteed entry. After being told his visa was canceled and that he would need to leave the country because he was not able to justify an exemption for the national requirement that foreign travelers be vaccinated, he was held overnight at the airport, before being sent to quarantine at a hotel until a judge ruled on his appeal of the decision. As the proceedings were under way, Djokovic was allowed to leave the hotel and was moved to be with his lawyers to watch the rather unreliable stream of the proceedings, which had over 14,000 viewers at one point.

With the Serbian government vowing to support their celebrity vaccine skeptic, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, has argued that the case is “simply a matter of following the rules” in a nation where COVID infections are skyrocketing.

Novak Djokovic Beats Australia (for Now)