Djokovic lawyers tell Australian court his presence doesn’t prompt anti-vax protests
MELBOURNE -Novak Djokovic’s lawyers told a court that will decide whether or not he can stay in Australia and defend his Open title there was no evidence to show the presence of the world’s number one tennis player had prompted anti-vaccine protests elsewhere.
After a rollercoaster 10 days in the country that saw the Serbian champion detained by immigration authorities, released and then detained again, his fate was in the hands of three Federal Court judges on Sunday.
Djokovic is appealing Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s use of discretionary powers to cancel his visa again on the grounds that he was a threat to public order because his presence would encourage anti-vaccination sentiment.
Nick Wood, acting for Djokovic, pointed to how the player competed in the Australian Open and other major tournaments around the world last year without provoking protests or unrest from anti-vaccination supporters.
“If there was any foundation for thinking that Mr Djokovic’s presence and participation at a tennis tournament might somehow lead to this anti-vax sentiment, one would expect that it would be supported by some kind of evidence about anti-vax protests or rallies or the like at tennis events,” Wood said.
But Wood told the court that nothing of the kind had been identified by the minister in his decision to cancel the visa.
Wood said that instead the possibility was a forced removal of Djokovic may spur the anti-vaccination movement and protests.
Djokovic had earlier been escorted from a detention hotel for asylum seekers by Australian immigration officers, about 8:30 a.m. local time and taken to his lawyers’ offices to attend the virtual court hearing.
‘TIRED OF THE SITUATION’
The build up to the Australian Open tournament, set to start Monday, has been eclipsed by the drama over the unvaccinated star’s bid to play.
Spanish great Rafael Nadal, tied with Djokovic for 20 Grand Slam titles, was one of several top players in town who said they just wanted the circus to be over.
Djokovic spent Saturday night at Melbourne’s Park Hotel, returning to the same immigration detention hotel where he was held for four nights after his arrival in Australia.
A judge had freed him on Monday after finding the decision to cancel his visa on arrival had been unreasonable. Djokovic has declined to be vaccinated against coronavirus and had sought to enter the country with a medical exemption from rules mandating all visitors to be vaccinated.
Court documents released after an initial hearing on Saturday showed Hawke had justified his decision on the grounds that Djokovic’s presence could whip up more anti-vaccination sentiment in Australia at a time that the country is in the midst of its worst outbreak of the virus.
“Although I … accept that Mr Djokovic poses a negligible individual risk of transmitting COVID-19 to other persons, I nonetheless consider that his presence may be a risk to the health of the Australian community,” Hawke said in a letter to Djokovic and his legal team.
Djokovic’s medical exemption from vaccine requirements to play in the Open prompted widespread anger in Australia, which has undergone some the world’s toughest COVID-19 lockdowns and where more than 90% of adults are vaccinated, but where hospitalisation rates continue to hit record highs.
The controversy over the tennis player has become a political touchstone for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he prepares for an election due by May.
His government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security during the pandemic, but it has faced criticism for its handling of Djokovic’s visa application.
Djokovic’s leading rivals have become increasingly impatient with the uncertainty hanging over the draw and the cloud hanging over their sport.
“Honestly I’m little bit tired of the situation because I just believe that it’s important to talk about our sport, about tennis,” Spaniard Rafa Nadal, who is tied on 20 major titles with Djokovic, told reporters at Melbourne Park, where the event will be played.
German Alexander Zverev, the world number three, said Djokovic had been treated unfairly and that the Serb might have been used as a political pawn by Australian authorities, something Canberra has denied.
“This is obviously not a nice thing for everyone, for him especially,” Zverev said. But don’t question his legacy because of this.”