Novak Djokovic leaves Australia after losing visa case as Serbian president blasts 'lies'

16 January 2022, 12:15

Djokovic has lost his court case
Djokovic has lost his court case. Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Will Taylor

Novak Djokovic has left Australia after he failed in his bid to appeal against his visa's cancellation.

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The men's tennis world number one flew from Melbourne as he faced being banned for three years. He will be unable to defend his title at the Australian Open.

Australian immigration minister Alex Hawke had re-cancelled the Serbian's visa after a legal spat over Djokovic's vaccine exemption - which allowed him to compete despite not having received a jab - that began the moment he touched down in Melbourne.

But while Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the outcome from the court case, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic launched an extraordinary attack on Canberra's lawyers, accusing them of lying.

In a statement released after judges announce his appeal had failed, Djokovic said: "I am extremely disappointed with the ruling to dismiss my application for judicial review of the minister's decision to cancel my visa, which means I cannot stay in Australia and participate in the Australian Open.

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"I respect the court's ruling and I'll cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country.

"I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.

"I would like to wish the players, tournament officials, staff, volunteers and fans all the best for the tournament.

"Finally, I would like to thank my family, friends, team, supporters, fans and my fellow Serbians for your continued support. You have all been a great source of strength to me."

President Vucic's reaction was much stronger.

"You saw in the pointless court proceeding how much the prosecution lied," he said.

"They are simply lying. They say there are fewer than 50 per cent vaccinated people in Serbia and officially the number is 58 per cent."

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said Djokovic had endured "physical and psychological mistreatment".

She said it was “unbelievable” that he was handed two different court decisions in just 11 days. Both said they are looking forward to welcoming him home.

Djokovic appealed the decision to cancel his visa again in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, where his lawyer Nick Wood argued there was no evidence his presence would stoke anti-vaccination sentiment, as had been claimed.

With more than 80,000 people watching the session on YouTube, Mr Wood said the evidence that Djokovic opposes vaccination was lacking, and that Mr Hawke had not considered whether deporting him would lead to more anti-vaxx sentiment.

"Not a single line of evidence in the material provided any specific or logical foundation whatsoever that the mere presence of Mr Djokovic in Australia in itself may somehow foster anti-vaccination sentiment," he said.

Djokovic has clarified that he is not opposed to vaccination but he is against being forced to take one to travel to tournaments, and he kept an open mind on the subject.

Mr Wood criticised Mr Hawke for not making reference to that. He also said that deporting the tennis star could impact on public health and order, and pointed to police pepper spraying Djokovic's supporters as they demonstrated for him in the street.

To win the appeal, the nine-time Australian Open champion's legal team would have had to prove Mr Hawke acted irrationally or outside of his powers.

Djokovic had hoped to stay and go for a record 21st grand slam in the Australian Open. He was slated to play on Monday.

He had been granted an exemption from Australia's vaccine requirement after saying he tested positive for Covid in December - but that led to more controversy when it emerged he carried out an interview shortly after.

He was also pictured at an event with children, though he claimed by then he had not received his PCR result.

Stephen Lloyd, for Mr Hawke, argued in court that the minister was aware that kicking out Djokovic would lead to some more unrest but he was "principally concerned" that keeping the star in the country would encourage people to "emulate his position and that would put the health of Australians at risk".

"He's a high-profile person who is in many respects a role model for many people. His presence in Australia would present more strongly to Australians his anti-vaccination views.

"People use high-level athletes to promote ideas and causes all the time. His connection to a cause, whether he wants it or not, is still present."

He also argued that Djokovic's "ongoing non-vaccination status is open to infer that a person in the applicant's position could have been vaccinated if he wanted to be".

He added: "Even before vaccines were available he was against it - his prima facie position was to be against them."

The three judges hearing the case reached the decision to reject Djokovic's judicial review of his visa cancellation early on Sunday, UK time.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: "Prime Minister Scott Morrison also issued a statement, saying: "I welcome the decision to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe.

"Strong borders are fundamental to the Australian way of life, as is the rule of law. Our government has always understood this and has been prepared to take the decisions and actions necessary to protect the integrity of our borders.

"It's now time to get on with the Australian Open and get back to enjoying tennis over the summer."

Mr Hawke welcomed the decision.

The ATP said: "Today's decision to uphold Novak Djokovic's Australian visa cancellation marks the end of a deeply regrettable series of events.

"Ultimately, decisions of legal authorities regarding matters of public health must be respected. More time is required to take stock of the facts and to take the learnings from this situation.

"Irrespective of how this point has been reached, Novak is one of our sport's greatest champions and his absence from the Australian Open is a loss for the game.

"We know how turbulent the recent days have been for Novak and how much he wanted to defend his title in Melbourne. We wish him well and look forward to seeing him back on court soon. ATP continues to strongly recommend vaccination to all players."