Melbourne, Australia — Tennis star Novak Djokovic on Monday won a court battle to stay in Australia to play in the Australian Open despite being unvaccinated against, but the government threatened to cancel his visa a second time.
Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly reinstated Djokovic’s visa, which wasbecause officials decided he didn’t meet the criteria for an exemption to an entry requirement that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated.
The judge also ordered the government to release Djokovic within 30 minutes from the Melbourne quarantine hotel where he spent the last four nights.
He has been freed, the Reuters news agency reports, adding that he was in his lawyers’ chambers during the virtual court session. He didn’t appear on-screen in the first hours of the hearing and didn’t immediately appear in public.
The ruling renewed the world’s top-ranked tennis player’s chance to win a record 21st Grand Slam title at the upcoming Open. Djokovic is a nine-time Australian Open champion. His 20 Grand Slam singles titles is a men’s record he shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
But government lawyer Christopher Tran told the judge after the decision that the minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, Alex Hawke, “will consider whether to exercise a personal power of cancellation” of the visa.
Reuters said he’s doing just that. “The Minister is currently considering the matter and the process remains ongoing,” Reuters quotes a Hawke spokesperson as saying.
That would mean Djokovic could again face deportation and could miss the Open, which starts January 17.
Kelly said the threat of another visa cancellation meant the “stakes have now risen rather than receded.”
Government lawyers confirmed that another visa cancelation would mean Djokovic would be banned from Australia for three years.
The back and forth has gripped the world and caused a furor in Australia, where many initially decried the news that Djokovic, who has been a vocal skeptic of vaccines, had received an exemption to strict rules to compete in Melbourne. Many felt the star was being given special treatment since Australians who aren’t vaccinated face tough travel and quarantine restrictions. Court documents say he is unvaccinated.
But when border police then blocked him on arrival, others cried foul, saying he was being scapegoated by an Australian government facing criticism for its recent handling of the pandemic.
Speaking with television network Prva in Belgrade, Serbia, the tennis star’s brother, Djordje Djokovic, described the judge’s ruling as a “great defeat for Australian authorities.”
But he said the family was still hearing that his brother might be detained, though he gave no details.
“This is definitely politics, all this was politics,” he added.
The office of Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews confirmed that Novak Djokovic has not been arrested.
It wasn’t clear where he was, though hundreds of fans gathered late Monday outside his lawyers’ office in Melbourne, many carrying Serbian flags and wearing the banner’s red, white and blue colors. They chanted “Free Nole,” using the star’s nickname. Police later dispersed them when they surrounded a car trying to leave the area.
The virtual hearing crashed several times because of an overwhelming number of people from around the world trying to watch the proceedings.
At one point, an expired court link was apparently hacked and broadcast pornography, The New Daily News website reported.
Agence France-Presse described Monday’s visa restoration as “an extraordinary setback for the Australian government, which has imposed strict pandemic requirements on arriving foreign travelers for the past two years.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government is seeking re-election for a fourth three-year term at polls due by May.
While his government was widely praised for containing the nation’s COVID-19 death toll at the start of the pandemic, Omicron cases have been rapidly surging. He has been criticized for shortages of rapid antigen tests and for refusing to make the tests available to all for free.
Djokovic had argued he didn’t need proof of vaccination because he had evidence that.
Australian medical authorities have ruled that a temporary exemption for the vaccination rule can be provided to people who’ve been infected with COVID-19 within six months.
Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly noted that Djokovic had provided officials at Melbourne’s airport with a medical exemption given to him by Tennis Australia, which is organizing the Open, and two medical panels.
“The point I’m somewhat agitated about is what more could this man have done?” Kelly asked Djokovic’s lawyer, Nick Wood.
Wood agreed with the judge that Djokovic could not have done more.
Transcripts of Djokovic’s interview with Border Force officials and his own affidavit revealed a “repeated appeal to the officers with which he was dealing that to his understanding, uncontradicted, he had done absolutely everything that he understood was required in order for him to enter Australia,” Wood said.
Djokovic’s lawyers submitted 11 grounds for appeal against his visa cancellation. The lawyers described the cancellation as “seriously illogical,” irrational and legally unreasonable.