An Australian judge ordered Novak Djokovic’s release from immigration detention after he overturned the federal government’s decision to cancel his visa, effectively clearing him to play at the Australian Open.
Federal Circuit Court judge Anthony Kelly announced his decision to free the world men’s number one tennis player just after 5PM on Monday, after the Australian government acknowledged in court that it cancelled the visa before giving the tennis star enough time to speak to others and fully respond.
Kelly reproached the government’s bungling bureaucracy and ordered Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews to pay Djokovic’s costs and take “all necessary steps to release the applicant immediately.” The decision means that the visa Djokovic came to Australia on stands.
But it isn’t over yet. Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke has warned that he may personally intervene and exercise further powers to cancel Djokovic’s visa again and send him home. In that case, the tennis champion would face being banned from Australia for three years.
The Australian federal circuit court began to hear Djokovic’s legal case on Monday, allowing him temporarily out of detention to view the hearing at an unknown location away from the Park Hotel. The court heard that Djokovic submitted a medical exemption document from a qualified physician—and backed up by an independent Victorian government panel—to Australian officials prior to having his visa cancelled at the border.
Kelly said he was “preoccupied” and “somewhat agitated” by the question of why officials did not accept that document, and questioned “what more” Djokovic could have done to prove the validity of his medical exemption.
“That [medical exemption] document was in the hands of the delegate [who cancelled his visa],” Kelly said. “The point I’m somewhat agitated about is: what more could this man [Djokovic] have done?”
Djokovic’s medical exemption was reportedly based on the fact that he recently had COVID-19. In court, the Australian government submitted that recent infection alone was not sufficient to qualify for a medical exemption, and further noted that the evidence indicated Djokovic “has recovered” and is therefore not entitled to one.
The tennis player touched down in Melbourne on Wednesday night with a medical exemption to participate in the Australian Open— despite the tournament’s strict vaccine mandates and Djokovic’s refusal to reveal whether he is inoculated against COVID-19. After being questioned by border officials, however, the 34-year-old, 20-time grand slam winner had his visa cancelled and was taken on Thursday morning to the Park Hotel in Melbourne’s central business district, where he was isolated and quarantined until his lawyers could appeal his deportation.
After the decision was announced, fans of the athlete celebrated Djokovic’s court victory, waving Serbian flags and dancing on the streets outside the federal circuit court.
The ongoing saga has become the subject of fierce international attention and controversy. Djokovic has been under the spotlight over the last few days, but he isn’t the only member of his family who has garnered attention. His father, Srdjan, has drawn criticism over sensational comments in which he compared his son to Spartacus and Jesus.
Speaking to Serbian media on Thursday, the older Djokovic declared: “Novak is Serbia, and Serbia is Novak. They [Australia] are treading on Novak, and with that they also tread on Serbia and the Serbian people.” Moments later, he compared the tennis champion to the son of God.
“They nailed Jesus to the cross, and did all sorts to him,” he said. “He withstood, and he still lives among us. In the same way, they are also trying to crucify Novak. To underestimate him; to bring him to his knees.”
At another point, Srdjan Djokovic claimed “My son is the new world's Spartacus, who will not tolerate injustice, colonialism and hypocrisy. He is imprisoned but has never been freer. He has become the symbol and the leader of the free world, the leader of the world of the nations and [the leader of] poor and needy people.”
Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic during the last century BC, and has since become a symbol of rebellion against oppressive rule. The parallel to Djokovic, a multimillionaire athlete who has become unwittingly entangled in COVID-related red tape, is obviously hyperbolic. But he isn’t the only one to have cast the tennis player in a messianic light during this ordeal.
Over the past few days a cult of personality has grown around Djokovic, both within Australia and abroad, as certain groups and individuals seek to frame the athlete as a martyr and a victim of government overreach. Among them: anti-vaxxers, who seem eager to leverage Djokovic’s profile to vindicate and advance their own beliefs.
Scores of anti-vaxx protesters gathered outside the Park Hotel over the weekend to condemn Djokovic’s detention and demand his release. They waved placards reading “No more lockdown, vax or unvax”; “Push back! Don’t comply!” and “Stand now or kneel forever.”
At an anti-vaxx rally in Melbourne on Saturday, others voiced their support for the tennis star and self-declared vaccine sceptic.
“I don’t want to see my grandchildren vaccinated,” said Margaret Beacham, a 67-year-old former schoolteacher, according to The Japan Times. “Novak is making a stand and it’s a worldwide opportunity for him to say something about vaccination status and how ridiculous it is.”
The focus on Djokovic as a victim and a hero has been especially bothersome to refugee advocates, especially against the backdrop of his detention at the Park Hotel, which has been home to dozens of refugees for months.
Other protesters have sought to use Djokovic’s stay at the detention hotel to draw attention to his co-habitants’ plight. Many of those refugee men, who came to Australia exercising their basic human right to seek asylum and were locked up by the very government that is legally obliged to protect them, were brought to the hotel off the back of several years in offshore detention, and have been given little to no indication of when they might be released.
“Djokovic could have used his experience over the last week to make a global plea for better conditions for migrants and refugees,” journalist Allen McDuffee wrote on Twitter. “Instead, his circle just made a case for why he didn’t deserve *their* experience because he’s Spartacus or Jesus or some other heroic figure.”
“If Djokovic is Spartacus, then I’m Rod Laver,” said columnist Max Boot in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. “In truth, Djokovic is another whiny sports superstar with screwy ideas and an exaggerated sense of entitlement.”
Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.