Djokovic’s lawyers say he had COVID last month, according to report

MELBOURNE, Australia — Lawyers for Novak Djokovic filed court documents in his challenge against deportation from Australia that showed the tennis star contracted COVID-19 last month, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Saturday.

The No. 1-ranked Djokovic was denied entry at the Melbourne airport late Wednesday after border officials canceled his visa for failing to meet its entry requirement that all non-citizens be fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

Djokovic was given a medical exemption backed by the Victoria state government and Australian Open organizers based on information he supplied to two independent medical panels.

But it has since emerged that the medical exemption, allowed for people who tested positive for the coronavirus in the previous six months, was deemed invalid by border authorities.

Djokovic is in an immigration detention hotel in Melbourne preparing for his challenge in the Federal Circuit Court on Monday.

The ABC reported that in the documents filed Saturday, Djokovic’s lawyers said Tennis Australia on Jan. 1 granted the 34-year-old Serbian player a “medical exemption from COVID vaccination” on the grounds that he had recently recovered from the coronavirus.

The exemption certification said the date of Djokovic’s first positive test was Dec. 16, 2021, and that he had not had a fever or respiratory symptoms in the past 72 hours.

The court submission said Djokovic received a document from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs saying that his travel declaration had been assessed and that his responses indicated that he met the requirements for quarantine-free arrival in Australia.

If he fails to have his visa cancellation overturned and gets deported for not having enough evidence to support a medical exemption to Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination rules, Djokovic risks missing more than one Australian Open and could be barred for up to three years.

In an emailed response to The Associated Press about what could transpire if Djokovic loses his legal fight, the Australian Border Force said: “A person whose visa has been canceled may be subject to a three-year exclusion period that prevents the grant of a further temporary visa.”

“The exclusion period will be considered as part of any new visa application and can be waived in certain circumstances, noting each case is assessed on its own merits.”

Australian Open organizers have not commented publicly, except to tell Australian newspapers that no players have been misled over the vaccination requirements.

Tournament director Craig Tiley has continued working with Djokovic, hoping to get the defending champion into the tournament that starts a week from Monday.

Tiley’s video message to Australian Open staff about the tournament’s “difficult time in the public arena” was published in News Corp. newspapers Saturday.

“There’s been a circumstance that relates to a couple of players, Novak particularly . . . in a situation that is very difficult,” Tiley said in the video. “We’re a player-first event. We’re working closely with Novak and his team, and others and their team, that are in this situation.”

The 34-year-old Djokovic, who shares the men’s record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, is one of two players put into detention in a hotel in Melbourne that also houses refugees and asylum seekers. A third person, reported to be an official, left the country voluntarily after border force investigations.

The other player was identified on Friday by the Czech Republic embassy in Canberra as 38-year-old doubles player Renata Voráčová.

Djokovic reached out to the world for the first time in three days later Friday night, posted on social media to mark the Orthodox Christmas and thank his supporters. There’s been large-scale rallies in Belgrade and small groups of supporters have gathered daily outside his detention hotel.

“Thank you to the people around the world for your continuous support,” Djokovic posted on Instagram. “I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated.”

After months of speculation he’d miss the tournament because of his stance on vaccination, Djokovic announced on Tuesday via social media that he’d received a medical exemption from the Victorian state government, backed by tennis organizers.

But he was barred from entering Australia late Wednesday when federal border authorities at the Melbourne airport rejected his exemption to Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

Tiley said in the video to staff that he couldn’t speak publicly because of the ongoing legal matter, but defended his organization.

“There’s a lot of finger pointing going on and a lot of blaming going on,” he said in the video, “but I can assure you our team has done an unbelievable job and have done everything they possibly could according to all the instructions that they have been provided.”

So, who is at fault? The federal government has blamed Djokovic, with the prime minister saying rules are rules and that incoming passengers were responsible for meeting border regulations.

Tennis Australia and the government of Victoria state, where the Australian Open is played, are blaming confusion over the precise definitions.

Tennis Australia, which runs the tournament and organizes the logistics for more than 2,000 incoming players, staff and officials, reportedly gave incorrect interpretations to players about the acceptable grounds for an exemption. That included the interpretation that having had a coronavirus infection within the previous six months would qualify.

That’s appears to be the key to the dispute. The federal government said applications on those grounds weren’t valid.

The state government of Victoria mandated that all players, staff, fans and officials must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to enter the tournament.

The state, which approved the medical exemptions for Djokovic, said those exemptions for were for access to Melbourne Park, not the border.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.