MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — A court hearing for tennis star Novak Djokovic’s appeal against a deportation order that threatens his participation in the Australian Open ended Sunday and a verdict was expected within hours.
Federal Court Chief Justice James Allsop said he and two fellow judges hoped to reach a verdict later Sunday. The top-ranked male tennis player needs to win the appeal to defend his Australian Open title in play that begins on Monday.
Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer, said it planned to release the schedule for Monday’s matches about 75 minutes after the court adjourned. Djokovic is supposed to play on Day 1.
Djokovic fought in a daylong urgent hearing the government's attempt to deport him based on Immigration Minister Alex Hawke's assessment that the top-ranked player is considered a “talisman of a community of anti-vaccination sentiment.”
Hawke’s lawyer Stephen Lloyd took aim at Djokovic’s anti-vaccination stance and his “history of ignoring COVID safety measures.”
Lloyd pointed to Djokovic testing positive for COVID-19 last month and attending a French media interview while infectious and removing his mask for a photo shoot. Djokovic has acknowledged that he made an error of judgment in those actions.
“The minister took the view that his presence in Australia would encourage people to emulate his apparent disregard for ... safety measures,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd said that Djokovic's “presence in Australia was seen to pose an overwhelming risk.”
The minister canceled Djokovic’s visa on Friday on the grounds that his presence in Australia may be a risk to the health and “good order” of the Australian public and “may be counterproductive to efforts at vaccination by others in Australia.”
Australia has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world.
Djokovic’s lawyers argued that the minister provided no evidence that Djokovic’s presence in Australia may “foster anti-vaccination sentiment.”
Djokovic’s lawyer Nick Wood also said the minister had failed to take into account how deporting Djokovic might “galvanize anti-vax activists,” as happened when the 34-year-old Serb faced deportation shortly after arriving in Melbourne on Jan. 5.
Djokovic supporters had called for a boycott of the Australian Open.
Hundreds of activists held a peaceful rally outside the Melbourne Park complex that hosts the Australian Open on Saturday and planned another for Monday over Djokovic's treatment.
“We’re at Rod Laver Arena to support Novak. He’s won nine (Australian Open) titles here. Hopefully this will be No. 10 -- if he can get out of quarantine and get his visa back,” said Harrison McLean, one of the rally organizers. “We’re a peaceful movement, here to raise awareness and support everyone’s freedom of choice.”
Lloyd said Hawke realized that canceling Djokovic’s visa “would result in some level of unrest.” But the minister's concerns about the consequences of the Serb staying were greater.
Djokovic spent Saturday night in an immigration detention hotel after he and his lawyers met with immigration officials earlier in the day.
He was permitted to leave the hotel to spend Sunday in his lawyers’ offices, under the guard of two immigration officials, while the challenge was heard via video conference.
Djokovic had spent four nights confined to a hotel near downtown Melbourne before being released last Monday when he won a court challenge on procedural grounds against his first visa cancellation.
Deportation from Australia can lead to a three-year ban on returning to the country, although that may be waived, depending on the circumstances.
The Health Department advised that Djokovic was a “low” risk of transmitting COVID-19 and a “very low” risk of transmitting the disease at the Australian Open.
Djokovic, who has won the last three Australian Open titles, is seeking a record 21st Grand Slam singles title. He is currently tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most by a man in history.
In a post on social media Wednesday that constituted his most extensive public comments yet on the episode, Djokovic blamed his agent for checking the wrong box on his travel document in a declaration on arrival in Australia, calling it “a human error and certainly not deliberate.”
Hawke downplayed Djokovic’s failure to disclose his travels to Spain and Serbia in the 14 days before he landed in Australia. Hawke said he was “minded to give it some weight in favor of cancellation” of his visa.
The episode has touched a nerve in Australia, and particularly in Victoria state, where locals went through more than 260 days of lockdowns during the worst of the pandemic.
Australia faces a massive surge in virus cases driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant. On Friday, the nation reported 130,000 new cases, including nearly 35,000 in Victoria state. Although many infected people aren’t getting as sick as they did in previous outbreaks, the surge is still putting severe strain on the health system and disrupting supply chains.
Djokovic’s supporters in Serbia have been dismayed by the visa cancellations. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused the Australian government of “harassing” and “maltreating” Djokovic and asked whether Morrison’s government is just trying to score political points ahead of upcoming elections.
“Why didn’t you return him back right away, or tell him it was impossible to get a visa?” Vucic asked the Australian authorities in a social media address. “Why are you harassing him and why are you maltreating not only him, but his family and an entire nation that is free and proud.”
Everyone at the Australian Open is required to be vaccinated.
According to Grand Slam rules, if Djokovic is forced to pull out of the tournament before the order of play for Day 1 is announced, No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev would move into Djokovic’s spot in the bracket.
If Djokovic withdraws from the tournament after Monday’s schedule is released, he would be replaced in the field by what’s known as a “lucky loser” — a player who loses in the qualifying tournament but gets into the main draw because of another player’s exit before competition has started.
AP Sports Writer John Pye contributed to this report.
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