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Novak Djokovic has visa canceled, denied entry to Australia over vaccine exemption

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has been denied entry into Australia over failing to provide appropriate documentation for an exemption from the country's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the Australian Border Force announced Wednesday.

"Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia," the ABF said in a statement. 

Upon arrival in Melbourne for the Australian Open, a tournament he's won nine times among his record-tying 20 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic spent most of Wednesday night being questioned by ABF officers.

Djokovic will reportedly appeal in the Australian courts, but it's unclear what his odds would be of having the decision overturned. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed Wednesday that Djokovic's visa had been canceled, saying "rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules.

Though Australian Open officials said that Djokovic was one of a handful of people traveling to the event that received medical exemptions (players, coaches, support staff, etc.), Djokovic has become a flashpoint for criticism because of the perception that he was receiving special treatment. The tournament has said that exemptions were handled anonymously by an independent panel of medical experts.

Djokovic in December 2021.

It’s unclear what grounds Djokovic used to apply for the exemption. One of the potential reasons cited could be a COVID-19 infection within the past six months, but most of the reasons allowed by the Australian government are serious medical conditions that likely wouldn’t affect one of the world’s top athletes. 

Melbourne, where the Australian Open is held, has been under severe anti-COVID measures during the pandemic with 260-plus days of lockdowns and restrictions on movement within the country that require special permission. The state of Victoria is now over 90% fully vaccinated, and the understanding from other players was that vaccination would be required to enter the Australian Open.

According to the ATP, 95 of the top 100 players in the rankings were vaccinated. One of those who isn’t, American Tennys Sandgren, did not make the trip despite being a two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist. 

Djokovic, who for months avoided directly answering whether he had been vaccinated, has been an outspoken vaccine skeptic in the past. In one embarrassing incident in the early days of the pandemic, Djokovic did an Instagram live that helped promote an herbal supplement company whose founder claimed that emotions can change the molecular structure of water.

Sam Groth, a retired ATP Tour player from Australia, wrote in a column for the Melbourne Herald Sun that Djokovic was “laughing in the face of Victorians.”

Current Australian No. 1 Alex de Minaur had a bemused look on his face when asked about it Tuesday at the ATP Cup in Sydney.

“I just think it’s very interesting,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

Now, with Djokovic likely being deported, there will be backlash on the other side. Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic posted a picture of Djokovic on his Instagram account shortly before the decision, saying he had spoken with his country's most accomplished sportsman and that Serbia "will fight for Novak Djokovic, for justice and truth."