By JOHN PYE and ROD McGUIRK
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) –
Novak Djokovic has admitted that his Australian travel declaration form contained incorrect information as the government is approaching a decision on whether to expel the Serbian tennis star who has not been vaccinated against COVID-19 for the sake of the public interest.
Men’s Tennis No. 1 had his visa canceled on arrival in Melbourne last week when his vaccination exemption was questioned, but he won a legal battle on procedural grounds that allowed him to stay in the country. He is still facing the prospect of deportation – a decision that is entirely up to Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s discretion if it is considered to be in the public interest for health and safety reasons.
Hawke has been considering the issue since a judge reinstated Djokovic’s visa on Monday.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said most Australians rejected the nine-time and defending Australian Open champion coming to Melbourne to compete in breach of the country’s tough pandemic quarantine rules.
“Most of us thought because Mr Djokovic had not been surprised twice that he would be asked to leave,” Joyce told Nine Network television Thursday. “Well, that was our view, but that was not the court’s view.”
“The vast majority of Australians… did not like the idea that another person, whether they are a tennis player or… the King of Spain or the Queen of England, can come up here and have a different set of rules than what everyone else has to deal with, “Joyce added.
In a statement sent to his social media accounts on Wednesday, the tennis star accused “human error” of his support team of not declaring that he had traveled for the two-week period before entering Australia.
Giving false information on the form can be grounds for deportation, the latest twist in a saga over whether the athlete should be allowed to stay in Australia even if he is not vaccinated. The first news that Djokovic was granted a waiver from strict vaccination rules to enter the country provoked an outcry, and the ensuing strife has since overshadowed the run-up to the Australian Open.
Djokovic acknowledged the omissions as he tried to clarify what he called “continued misinformation” about his movements after he was infected last month – though he did not specify what inaccuracies he was referring to.
The statement was made public while Djokovic was in the Rod Laver Arena and held a training session, his third on the tournament’s main course since being released from four nights in immigration prison.
Djokovic remains in limbo before the first tennis major of the year starts on Monday. The stakes are particularly high as he seeks a men’s record as the 21st Grand Slam singles title.
Expulsion could result in sanctions of up to three years’ ban on entering Australia, a frightening prospect for a player who has won almost half of his 20 Grand Slam singles titles here.
Legal documents describing Djokovic’s positive test sparked speculation about the star player’s participation in events in his home country, Serbia, last month. Further questions were also raised about errors on his immigration form that could potentially result in the cancellation of his visa again.
On the form, Djokovic said he had not traveled in the 14 days before his flight to Australia, despite being seen in Spain and Serbia during that period.
In his statement, Djokovic described recent comments as “hurtful” and said he wanted to address it in the interest of “addressing a broader community concern about my presence in Australia.”
The 34-year-old Serb said he had taken rapid tests that were negative and that he was asymptomatic before receiving his positive result from a PCR test he performed of an “abundance of caution” after participating in a basketball match in Belgrade on December 14.
He received the result by December 17, he said, and scrapped all his commitments except for a lengthy interview with the newspaper L’Equipe the following day.
“I felt obligated to move on … but made sure I took social distance and wore a mask, except when my picture was taken,” Djokovic said.
The L’Equipe reporter who interviewed the athlete wrote in the newspaper that he and a photographer were also masked during the session – and kept their distance except for a brief moment when Djokovic said goodbye. The reporter said he tested negative for COVID-19 on Monday and did not mention the photographer’s status.
“While I went home after the interview to isolate myself for the required period, this was, on reflection, a misjudgment,” Djokovic said.
At that time, Serbia required those infected with COVID-19 to isolate themselves for at least 14 days. But Djokovic was seen just over a week after his positive test on the streets of Belgrade, even though he said he had tested negative occasionally.
Meanwhile, Djokovic addressed the Australian travel statement, saying it had been submitted by his support team, and “my agent sincerely apologizes for the administrative error in ticking the wrong box.”
“This was a human error and certainly not deliberate,” he wrote. “My team has provided further information to the Australian Government to clarify this matter.”
The decision may take a while – but there is time pressure since the draw for deciding brackets for the Australian Open is set to take place on Thursday.
Hawke’s office issued a statement on Wednesday saying Djokovic’s legal team had filed additional documents, adding: “This will obviously affect the time frame for a decision.”
It is a question of whether he has a valid exemption from strict rules requiring vaccination to enter Australia since he recently recovered from COVID-19.
His exemption from competing was approved by the State of Victoria and Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer. It apparently allowed him to receive a visa to travel.
But the Australian border force rejected the exemption and canceled his visa on arrival before a federal judge overturned that decision. Lawyers for the government have said that an infection was only the basis for an exception in cases where coronavirus caused serious illness – although it is not clear why he was issued a visa, if that is the case.
The initial decision to let him compete triggered complaints that Djokovic was being given special treatment – and the subsequent cancellation of his visa raised claims that he was targeted when the issue became political. The saga unfolds amid growing concern in Australia over rising COVID-19 cases – and the government’s strategy to curb them.
If Djokovic’s visa is revoked, his lawyers could go back to court to request a ban that would prevent him from being forced to leave the country.
Sydney-based immigration lawyer Simon Jeans said if Djokovic’s visa was canceled, he would likely be held in immigration jail. Djokovic could apply for a bridging visa to compete in the tournament until the appeal is awaited. The Immigration Department would have two business days to decide on this application. If Djokovic was denied such a visa, an appeal would typically take weeks, Jeans said.
This story has been updated to correct quoted portions of Djokovic’s statement. It continued to say misinformation, not ongoing misinformation; obligated, not obligated; my team, not the team. It has also been updated to correct Serbia’s rules on isolation following a positive COVID-19 test in December.
McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia. Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed.
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