World tennis number one Novak Djokovic was released from Australian immigration detention on Monday (January 10) after winning a court challenge to remain in the country, but the government said it was still considering another move to deport him.
Judge Anthony Kelly ruled the federal government’s decision last week to revoke the Serbian tennis star’s visa amid a row over his medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination requirements was “unreasonable” and ordered his release.
Djokovic, who arrived in Australia last week in pursuit of a record 21st Grand Slam title at the upcoming Australian Open, spent the day at his lawyers’ chambers and did not immediately appear in public or make any statement after the ruling.
There were chaotic scenes on Monday evening as supporters who had gathered outside the lawyers’ office chanting “Free Novak!” surged around a black Audi with tinted windows leaving the building, while police at one stage used pepper spray as they tried to clear a path.
It was unclear if Djokovic was in the vehicle, though police later told reporters outside that he had left. His family were due to hold a news conference in Belgrade later.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said he was considering using his personal power to again revoke Djokovic’s visa.
“The minister is currently considering the matter and the process remains ongoing,” the spokesman said.
The controversy has been closely followed around the world, creating diplomatic tensions between Belgrade and Canberra and sparking heated debate over national vaccination rules.
Serbia’s parliamentary speaker, Ivica Dacic, said he was concerned Hawke could still deport Djokovic, a move that would bar the 34-year-old from the country for three years.
“The process should have ended when the court ruled on the matter,” Dacic, a former foreign minister, told Serbia’s Happy TV. “It defies common sense.”
Spanish rival Rafa Nadal called the drama surrounding the build-up to the tournament, which starts on January 17, a “circus”.
“Whether or not I agree with Djokovic on some things, justice has spoken and has said that he has the right to participate in the Australian Open and I think it is the fairest decision to do so,” Nadal told Spanish radio Onda Cero.
There has been huge global interest in the case, but the authorities’ efforts to let the media and public follow events in court at times descended into farce as pranksters hijacked the internet links to stream loud music and porn.
Judge Kelly said he had quashed the decision to block Djokovic’s entry to Australia because the player was not given enough time to speak to tennis organisers and lawyers to respond fully after he was notified of the intent to cancel his visa.
Officials at Melbourne’s airport, where Djokovic had been detained on arrival late on Wednesday, reneged on an agreement to give Djokovic until 8:30 am to speak to tournament organiser Tennis Australia and lawyers, the judge said.
Djokovic was instead woken up by officials at around 6:00 am after a brief rest and said he felt pressured to respond. The player, a long-term vocal opponent of mandatory vaccination, told border officials he was unvaccinated and had had COVID-19 twice, according to a transcript of the interview.
Kelly earlier told the court it appeared Djokovic had sought and received the required medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination on the basis that he had contracted the virus last month. He had presented evidence of this before he travelled to Melbourne and when he landed on Wednesday evening.
“What more could this man have done?” Kelly said.
Kelly’s ruling did not directly address the issue of whether the exemption on the grounds of an infection in the past six months was valid, which the government had disputed.
Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said earlier that his organisation had spoken with federal and state officials for months to ensure the safe passage of players. Tennis Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Though news of the ruling was greeted with drums and dancing by a group of around 50 supporters, many draped in the Serbian flag, outside the Melbourne court, wider public opinion in Australia, where more than 90 per cent of the adult population is double vaccinated, has been largely against the player.
Emotions ran particularly high in Melbourne, which has experienced the world’s longest cumulative lockdown.
The country’s COVID-19 cases surpassed 1 million on Monday, with more than half of them recorded in the past week, driving up hospitalisation numbers, straining supply chains and overloading testing facilities.
The saga kicked off when Djokovic posted a photo of himself leaning on his luggage on Instagram last Tuesday, telling the world he was headed to Australia to compete in the Open with a vaccination exemption.