At a virtual hearing at the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia in Melbourne on Monday, Judge Anthony Kelly said Djokovic must be released from immigration detention within 30 minutes of the order being made.
The battle waged by the men’s world No. 1 became a flashpoint in the broader struggle over vaccinations and government restrictions to combat the coronavirus. It came after fury in Australia, which is battling a new wave of infections driven by the omicron variant, over Djokovic’s claim of a vaccine exemption allowing him to compete in this month’s Australian Open tournament.
The court order centered largely on how the government handled the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa. The judge noted that the decision was made by a delegate for the home affairs minister at 7:42 a.m. on Thursday, even though Djokovic had been told he would have more time to respond to the notification that his visa was at risk of being canceled.
“If the applicant had had until 8:30 a.m., he could have consulted others and made submissions to the delegate about why his visa should not be canceled,” Kelly said in reading out an agreement between the government and Djokovic’s lawyers.
An earlier court order had allowed Djokovic to leave the Park Hotel where he was being detained so he could attend the virtual hearing with his legal team.
The tennis star, 34, was hoping to defend his title at the season’s first major tennis tournament, and his participation is now again possible when it starts on Jan. 17. But the government says the immigration minister could still use his personal power to cancel Djokovic’s visa again.
The tennis star has drawn fierce support from his native Serbia, and from protesters who expressed their backing outside the hotel in which he was held over the weekend. But while his fight became a rallying point for many opposed to restrictions on the unvaccinated, others saw the furor as the latest incident to undermine the credentials of a sporting great who has drawn frequent criticism for his behavior on and off the court.
The saga began when Djokovic announced on Instagram last Tuesday that he had been granted “an exemption permission” for the Covid-19 vaccination, which would allow him to fly to Australia to take part in the tournament.
While he was in the air, questions were raised about exactly how and why Djokovic was granted the medical exemption, amid a worsening epidemic situation in Australia. The country’s total coronavirus infections surpassed 1 million on Monday, with more than half of them recorded in the past week, Reuters reported.
Australia’s Covid-19 rules stipulate that incoming travelers must have had two shots of an approved vaccine, or must have an exemption with a genuine medical reason to avoid quarantine. All Australian Open players, staff, officials and fans also need to be fully vaccinated to enter the tournament venue.
Australia has had some of the world’s toughest border restrictions and only started to allow some international travel in November.
Melbourne residents have had to endure months of severe restrictions on their movement since the pandemic started, and Djokovic’s apparent exemption caused outrage among residents and stirred allegations that the tennis star may have received preferential treatment.
Djokovic was detained at the airport in Melbourne overnight after landing late on Wednesday. In an interview with officials, he said he was not vaccinated against Covid-19 but had been granted an exemption because he had contracted — and recovered from — the virus in December. There was a dispute over whether this was allowed, and officials subsequently canceled Djokovic’s visa, saying he had failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet Australia’s entry requirements.
In a court filing ahead of the hearing on Monday, government lawyers said the Australian government had not given Djokovic an assurance that the medical exemption would be accepted.
At the hearing, Kelly questioned why the home affairs delegate had not accepted Djokovic’s medical exemption, which was reviewed by two medical panels.
“The point I’m somewhat agitated about is, ‘What more could this man have done?’” the judge said.
On Saturday, Australian authorities sought to delay the proceedings until Wednesday, but their bid was rejected. In its court filing, the government said that if Djokovic won the case, it would still have the power to cancel his visa and detain him again.
If Immigration Minister Alex Hawke were to remove Djokovic from Australia, the tennis star would be ineligible to return to the country for three years. That decision could also be appealed.
Kelly told government lawyer Christopher Tran that he expected to be “fully informed in advance” if further court proceedings were necessary, saying “the stakes have now risen rather than receded.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Djokovic has won nine of his 20 major titles at the Australian Open, and shares the men’s record for most majors with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The drama unfolding around Djokovic has rocked the tennis world and created tensions between Serbia and Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been vocal about Djokovic’s case and said Thursday, “No one is above rules,” and “there are no special cases.”
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić threw national support behind Djokovic, saying Wednesday in a post on Instagram that “the whole of Serbia is with him.”
Djokovic’s family has held rallies in support of him in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic assured him of her government’s support in his visa battle.
His Australian fans, many draped in Serbian flags and wearing “Novak” T-shirts, also rallied around him outside the hotel in Melbourne where Djokovic was kept under guard for several days while awaiting his appeal hearing. The hotel is also used to house refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom have been there for years.
His family had accused the Australian government of holding him “prisoner” at the hotel. The country’s authorities, however, rejected those claims, saying the player was free to leave Australia at any time.
Djokovic thanked his supporters in an Instagram post on Friday as he celebrated Orthodox Christmas in detention. “I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated,” the player said.
Other players who were granted medical exemptions by Australia’s authorities have also been scrutinized and swept up in the furor around Djokovic. Renata Voráčová, a 38-year-old Czech doubles player, was detained in the same hotel over a vaccine dispute before leaving Australia on Saturday, the Associated Press reported.