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Tennis world No.1 Novak Djokovic was included in the Australian Open draw as top seed on Thursday though uncertainty hung over his participation with the government considering whether to revoke his visa for a second time.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke could exercise discretionary power to cancel the visa over concern about the Serbian’s medical exemption from Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination rules.
The saga has intensified global debate over the rights of the unvaccinated and become a tricky political issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he campaigns for re-election.
Djokovic, a vaccine sceptic, fuelled widespread anger in Australia when he announced he was heading to Melbourne with a medical exemption from requirements for visitors to be inoculated against COVID-19.
A court on Monday allowed him to stay on grounds that officials had been “unreasonable” at his interview in a seven-hour process in the middle of the night.
The government must now decide whether to let Djokovic remain and bid for a record men’s 21st major title.
“What he should (do), is kick him out,” Melbourne resident Tyler Agnew said of the pending decision, reflecting widespread anger in a country that has endured some of the world’s longest lockdowns and has a 90% vaccination rate among adults.
Djokovic’s cause was not helped by a mistake in his entry declaration, where a box was ticked stating he had not travelled abroad in the two weeks before leaving for Australia.
In fact, he had gone to Spain from Serbia.
‘TAKING TOLL ON HIM’
Fans, including many Serbian Australians, gave him noisy support when he was detained. Anti-vaxxers have hailed him as a hero, and his family have portrayed him as a champion of individual rights.
But Australian former tennis player Todd Woodbridge said he met Djokovic on Thursday and the uproar was affecting him.
“He is still very aware he may not get to the starting blocks for round one,” Woodbridge, who is now a commentator, told a tournament television programme. “He is very, very visible … it’s taking a toll on him.”
An online poll by the News Corp media group found that 83% of nearly 60 000 respondents were in favour of the government trying to deport Djokovic.
“I would just say though, you know, just get vaccinated. That is the key,” said Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state where Melbourne is the capital.
“That’s what I’ve said to every single Victorian, that’s what I’ve done, that’s what my kids have done, that’s what families, 93% of our community has done that, and I’m very proud of them for doing it, I’m very grateful.”
There may also be resentment in the dressing room, where all but three of the top 100 men are inoculated.
Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas told India’s WION television channel Djokovic was playing by his own rules. “No one would have thought I can come to Australia unvaccinated and not having to follow the protocols, which takes a lot of daring to do and putting the Grand Slam at risk,” he said.
Tennis great Martina Navratilova told Australian television Djokovic should “suck it up” and go home.
“The bottom line is, sometimes your personal beliefs have to be trumped by what’s good for the greater good, for those around you, for your peers,” she told Australian broadcaster Seven’s Sunrise programme.
“You have two choices, get vaccinated or just don’t go play.”