Djokovic included in the Australian Open draw despite uncertainty about the visa saga

Tennis world No.1 Novak Djokovic was included in the Australian Open’s official draw on Thursday, although uncertainty remained as to whether the government will suspend the top seed visa for the second time.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke is considering exercising his discretionary power to revoke Djokovic’s visa due to concerns over the star’s medical exemption from Australia’s requirement for COVID-19 vaccination.

The 34-year-old defending champion, who was out training at Rod Laver Arena earlier on Thursday, drew unseeded Serb Miomir Kecmanovic to his opening match, which is expected to be played on Monday or Tuesday.

The controversy has assumed a significance that goes beyond tennis: it has intensified a global debate on the rights of the unvaccinated and has become a tricky political issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he campaigns for re-election.

Australia is due to hold an election in May, and while Morrison’s government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security before and during the pandemic, it has not escaped criticism over the mishandling of Djokovic’s visas.

Morrison declined to comment on Djokovic’s visa on Thursday.

The organizer Tennis Australia had delayed the official draw for more than an hour, without saying why.

Djokovic, a vaccine skeptic, fueled widespread anger in Australia last week when he announced he was on his way to Melbourne for the Australian Open with a medical exemption from requiring visitors to be inoculated against COVID-19.

Upon his arrival, Australian border officials decided that his exemption was invalid and he was held with asylum seekers in an immigration hotel for several days.

A court on Monday allowed him to stay because officials had been “unreasonable” in the way they handled his interview in a seven-hour trial in the middle of the night.

The government, which has won support at home for its tough stance on border security before and during the pandemic, must now decide whether to let Djokovic stay and bid for a record-breaking 21st major title.

Mistakes made

Djokovic’s case was not helped by a mistake in his entry declaration, where a box indicating that he had not traveled abroad during the two weeks before leaving for Australia was ticked.

He had actually gone to Spain from Serbia.

Djokovic, 34, attributed the error to his agent and admitted that he should also have booked an interview and photography for a French newspaper on December 18 when he was infected with covid-19.

Fans, including many Serbian Australians, gave him noisy support when he was arrested. Anti-waxxers have hailed him as a hero and his family has portrayed him as a champion of individual rights.

But Djokovic can face hostility from the crowd if and when he goes out on the field.

There is widespread anger over the saga among Australians, who have a vaccination rate of 90% among adults after enduring some of the world’s longest locks in order to curb the pandemic.

The crowd at Opens’s main arenas will be limited to 50% capacity and masks will be mandatory for all spectators under updated covid-19 restrictions announced on Thursday as authorities fight a large number of cases caused by the Omicron variant.

“I do not like his arrogance,” Teyhan Ismain, a Melbourne resident, said on Wednesday. “It seems like he’s told some fibs too. So I think he should probably go back.”

There may also be resentment in the locker room, where all but three of the top 100 men are inoculated.

Tennis star Martina Navratilova told Australian television Djokovic should “suck it up” and return home.

“The bottom line is, sometimes your personal beliefs have to be trumped by what’s good for the better, for those around you, for your peers,” she told Seven’s Sunrise program. “You have two choices, get vaccinated or just not go play.”

(REUTERS)

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