Tennis: Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic detained in Melbourne asylum hotel, awaiting anti-vax deportation

Novak Djokovic faces at least 72 hours holed up in a Melbourne hotel for immigration detainees, after he was denied entry into Australia, amid a political firestorm over his medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

The tennis star, who is chasing a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, remained in the country, after his lawyers launched an appeal seeking to overturn the Federal Government decision. A court agreed not to deport him, before a full hearing scheduled for Monday.

Fuelled by domestic political pointscoring over the country's handling of a record surge in new COVID-19 infections, the saga has sparked an international row, with Serbia's President claiming his nation's most celebrated sportsman was being harassed.

Djokovic's family held a rally in front of Serbia's Parliament building at Belgrade, with about 300 fans - some draped in Serbian flags - chanting slogans supporting their idol. Father Srdan Djokovic told the crowd the protests would continue every day, until his son was released.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the decision to deny Djokovic entry at a televised news briefing.

"There are no special cases, rules are rules," he says. "We will continue to make the right decisions, when it comes to securing Australian borders in relation to this pandemic."

Spanish champion Rafael Nadal told reporters in Melbourne that he felt sorry for his rival, "but at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago".

Djokovic, who has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status, while publicly criticising mandatory vaccines, kicked off the furore, when he claimed he had received a medical exemption to compete in the Open, starting January 17.

The announcement prompted an outcry in Australia, particularly in the tournament host city of Melbourne, which has endured the world's longest cumulative lockdown to ward off the coronavirus.


At a hearing in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, lawyers for Djokovic and the Government agreed the player could remain in the country until at least Monday.

Djokovic's fate is tied to a political fight in Australia, characterised by fingerpointing between Morrison's conservative administration and the left-leaning Victoria State Government.

The squabbles rumbled on, as Australia's daily COVID-19 infections hit a record high for the fourth consecutive day, overwhelming hospitals and causing labour shortages.

Under Australia's federal system, states and territories can issue exemptions from vaccination requirements to enter their jurisdictions, but the Federal Government controls international borders and can challenge such exemptions.

For reasons that are not known, Djokovic received his exemption from the Victorian Government, which supported his Federal Government-issued visa, but on his arrival, Federal Border Force officials at the airport said he was unable to justify the grounds for his exemption.

The Australian task force that sets the exemption parameters lists the risk of serious cardiac illness from inoculation and a COVID-19 infection in the past six months as qualifiers, but Morrison says Tennis Australia was advised weeks ago that a recent infection did not meet the criteria for exemption.

Tennis Australia and Victoria Government officials say Djokovic received no preferential treatment.

With the Open to start on January 17, lawyer Nick Wood told Judge Anthony Kelly that Tennis Australia had advised it needed to know about his participation in the tournament by Tuesday.

Kelly, who had asked when Djokovic was scheduled to play his first match, responded: "If I can say with the respect necessary, the tail won't be wagging the dog here."


The move by the Australian Government to block Djokovic's entry has caused ructions between Canberra and Belgrade.

Protestors outside Djokovic's asylum hotel
Protestors outside Djokovic's asylum hotel. Photo credit: Getty

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic tweets he spoke with Djokovic and accused the Australian Government of harassment.

"This persecution is unfair, starting with the Australian Prime Minister," he later told Serbian media. "They are acting as if the same set of rules apply to everyone, but they've let in others on the same grounds that Novak had applied to."

Morrison is aware "representations have been made" by the Serbian embassy in Canberra, but denies accusations of harassment.

Srdjan Djokovic told media in Serbia that his son was ushered into an isolation room under police guard when he arrived at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport late on Wednesday, after a 14-hour flight from Dubai.

With his nine previous Australian Open trophies on display, his family held an emotional news conference at Djokovic's restaurant in Belgrade, before protesting in front of parliament.

"They are keeping him in captivity," says his father, who earlier described his son as "the Spartacus of the new world".

"They are stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia." 

There was also support on the streets of the Serbian capital.

"He is the best in the history of that sport and they cannot break him in any other way, but this one," says Belgrade resident Zdravko Cukic. "They are not going to break him."