MELBOURNE, Australia (AFP)— Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia Sunday having lost a sensational legal battle over his coronavirus vaccination status and with his dream of clinching a record 21st Grand Slam in tatters.
An “extremely disappointed” Djokovic said he would comply with a unanimous Federal Court decision to uphold his visa cancellation over fears he could stoke anti-vaccine sentiment.
“I cannot stay in Australia and participate in the Australian Open,” he said on the eve of a tournament that he has dominated for a decade.
“I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.”
An AFP reporter captured images of Djokovic at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport late Sunday, as the humbled star boarded a flight for Dubai.
EK409 took off at 10:51 pm local time (1151 GMT).
Just hours earlier, in a few dry words, the chief justice of Australia’s Federal Court, James Allsop, dispensed with the unvaccinated tennis superstar’s attempt to reinstate his cancelled visa and to make tennis history.
“The orders of the court are that the amended application be dismissed with costs,” Allsop said in understated remarks that ended a week of legal high drama.
Three Federal Court justices had listened to half a day of feisty legal back-and-forth about Djokovic’s alleged risk to public order in Australia.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke claimed Djokovic’s stance could inspire anti-vaccine sentiment, leading some people to face the pandemic without vaccination and inspiring anti-vaxxer activists to gather in protests and rallies.
Hawke welcomed Sunday’s verdict, saying: “Australia’s strong border protection policies have kept us safe during the pandemic.”
“(They) are also fundamental to safeguarding Australia’s social cohesion,” he said.
The player’s high-powered legal team tried but failed to paint Australia’s effort to deport him as “irrational” and “unreasonable”.
Despite the star being unvaccinated, lawyer Nick Wood insisted his client had not courted anti-vaxxer support and was not associated with the movement.
The government “doesn’t know what Mr Djokovic’s current views are”, Wood insisted.
The court did not endorse the government’s decision, but ruled the action was legal under rules that give the minister exceptional and almost unquestionable executive power.
– Anti-vaccination ‘icon’ –
The Australian Open defending champion and first seed had been scheduled to play against fellow Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic on Monday evening.
But Djokovic has spent much of the last week in immigration detention, with his visa twice being revoked by the government over his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine before arrival — a requirement for most visitors.
Government lawyer Stephen Lloyd said the fact Djokovic was not vaccinated two years into the pandemic and had repeatedly ignored safety measures — including failing to isolate while COVID-19 positive — was evidence enough of his anti-vaccine views.
“He has now become an icon for the anti-vaccination groups,” Lloyd said. “Rightly or wrongly he is perceived to endorse an anti-vaccination view and his presence here is seen to contribute to that.”
In a written submission the government also pointed out that Djokovic chose not to give evidence at the hearing.
“He could set the record straight if it needed correcting. He has not — that has important consequences.”
Because of the format of the court, the justices’ decision would have been almost impossible to appeal.
Scott Morrison’s government had tried and failed to remove Djokovic once before — on the grounds he was unvaccinated and that a recent COVID infection was not sufficient for a medical exemption.
A lower circuit court judge ruled that officials at Melbourne airport made procedural errors when cancelling his visa.
For a few days, Djokovic was free to train — before a second visa revocation and a return to a notorious Melbourne immigration detention facility.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic lashed out at Australian authorities.
“They think that they have by this, this mistreatment of 10 days, humiliated Djokovic, but they have humiliated themselves. Djokovic can return to his country with his head held high,” Vucic told a state media outlet.
Vucic has remained steadfast in his support for Djokovic throughout the drama, calling the earlier detention of the tennis star a “political witch hunt”.
“I spoke earlier to Novak Djokovic after the decision and I encouraged him. We look forward to seeing him return to his country, where he is always welcome,” the president added.
– ‘With or without him’ –
Many Australians — who have suffered prolonged lockdowns and border restrictions — believe the player gamed the system to dodge vaccine entry requirements.
The case has been seized on by culture warriors in the roiling debate over vaccines and how to handle the pandemic.
The tennis ace contracted COVID-19 in mid-December — allowing for the medical exemption — and, according to his own account, failed to isolate despite knowing he was positive.
Public records show he attended a stamp unveiling and a youth tennis event, and granted a media interview around the time he got tested and his latest infection was confirmed.
Djokovic is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 Grand Slam titles each.
Spanish great Nadal took a swipe at his rival on Saturday as players complained the scandal was overshadowing the opening Grand Slam of the year.
“The Australian Open is much more important than any player,” Nadal told reporters at Melbourne Park.
“The Australian Open will be a great Australian Open with or without him.”