For the second time since he arrived in Australia to play in the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic has seen his visa canceled. The decision was made by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke on Friday. Due to “health and good order grounds,” Hawke wrote in a statement, “it was in the public interest” to cancel the visa. Djokovic is expected to appeal to federal court, which would likely hold a hearing within the next day. If the appeal fails, Djokovic would be subject to deportation. The No. 1 men’s tennis player would thus be ineligible to defend his title. The Open is set to begin on Monday in Melbourne.
Djokovic, 34, has been a source of controversy since arriving in Australia on Jan. 6. Tennis Australia, the country’s governing body for the sport, exempted Djokovic from a legal requirement that people holding visas be vaccinated for COVID-19. Djokovic’s exemption was mainly premised on the Serbian star being infected in December and thus producing antibodies. It was certified by the Department of Public Health for the state of Victoria. Djokovic relied on the exemption in traveling from Dubai on Jan. 5.
The 20-time Grand Slam winner didn’t get far after arriving. Immigration officials detained him on the grounds that he is unvaccinated. Timing played a role. Australian policy on accepting state-certified medical exemptions had shifted on Jan. 6—the day he landed—and had become less deferential. Djokovic’s visa was promptly canceled, a move Djokovic challenged in court. His attorneys stressed that he had detrimentally relied on the exemption. They also argued the government should be estopped from acting since canceling his visa contradicted earlier assurances.
On Monday, Judge Anthony Kelly of Australia’s Federal Circuit Court held that the government had committed a procedural error under Australia’s Migration Act. The mistake: denying Djokovic a credible chance to challenge the cancellation before it became final. While the ruling prevented Djokovic’s removal from Australia, it didn’t mean he could play in the Open or that the government couldn’t cancel his visa again—which is what happened on Friday.
Since Monday, materials presented by Djokovic’s representatives in his visa application have come under scrutiny. Those materials reportedly contain falsehoods or irregularities. And on Wednesday, Djokovic admitted on Instagram that he had committed an “error in judgment” in December, conducting an interview with a journalist in Serbia after knowingly testing positive for COVID-19.
Unless Djokovic’s attorneys can persuasively argue that Hawke’s cancellation was procedurally flawed, they will need to rebut the substantive reasons for the cancellation. Those reasons center on the health risk that Djokovic poses to Australians. In a press conference on Thursday, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison stressed that border protection policies “have been central” to Australia’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Rich Hawkins, a partner at Bird & Bird in Sydney and a longtime Australian sports attorney, stresses that Hawke took “his time” in reaching a decision and was likely “careful to ensure that his decision is procedurally fair.”
If Djokovic can use the legal system to restore his visa and lawfully travel in Australia, he would be eligible to play in the Open. He would face a fellow Serbian, Miomir Kecmanovic, in Round 1.
If Djokovic’s legal efforts fail and he is forced to leave the country, he could be ineligible for another visa for three years. However, that stipulation can be waived by the government.
An exiled Djokovic could also explore litigation possibilities against Tennis Australia and the state of Victoria. Djokovic could argue he relied to his detriment on assurances he would be able to enter the country and play. Hawkins points out that there is “a broad ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provision” under Australia’s Competition and Consumer Act that could apply.
However, any potential claims would be weakened if, as it appears, Djokovic submitted inaccurate documents in the visa process. To that point, Hawkins is skeptical that Djokovic would sue Tennis Australia. “There is a strong long-term relationship between them,” Hawkins tells Sportico, “and I think it is more likely that he would consider that [Tennis Australia has done] their best to get him here and the Federal Government have blindsided them.”
Djokovic is among the world’s highest-earning athletes, having earned $33.4 million between May 2020 and May 2021. His net worth has been estimated as exceeding $200 million.
With assistance from Nick Peacock-Smith.
(This story was updated to include further details and comments from Hawke.)