Sports, Tennis

‘Australian Open is bigger than any player’

Published : 15 Jan 2022 09:53 PM

Australia detained Novak Djokovic for a second time on Saturday, calling the tennis star a threat to public order and fighting in court to deport him.

Having once failed to remove the unvaccinated 34-year-old from the country, Australia's conservative government is trying again. And again Djokovic is fighting back.

A federal court hearing is scheduled for Sunday and in the meantime Djokovic was placed under guard at an undisclosed Melbourne location, believed to be his lawyers' offices.

He is expected to spend Saturday night in immigration detention, after a few short-lived days of freedom following his first successful court appeal.

For millions around the world, the Serbian star is best known as a gangly all-conquering tennis champion, with a ferocious backhand and some questionable views on Covid-19.

But in court filings, Australia has cast him as a talisman for anti-vaxxers and a catalyst for potential "civil unrest", who must be removed.

Djokovic's presence in Australia "may foster anti-vaccination sentiment", immigration minister Alex Hawke argued, justifying his use of broad executive powers to revoke the ace's visa.

Not only could Djokovic encourage people to flout health rules, Hawke said, but his presence could lead to "civil unrest".

So with just two days before the Australian Open begins, the defending champion is again focused on law courts rather than centre court.

This is the second attempt by Australia's conservative government to deport Djokovic, one of the world's most high-profile Covid-19 vaccine sceptics.

After months of speculation about whether Djokovic would get vaccinated to play in Australia, he used a medical exemption to enter the country a week ago, hoping to challenge for a record 21st Grand Slam title at the Open.

Many Australians -- who have suffered prolonged lockdowns and border restrictions -- believe Djokovic gamed the system to dodge vaccine entry requirements.

Amid public outcry, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government revoked Djokovic's visa on arrival.

But the government was humiliated when a judge reinstated Djokovic's visa and allowed him to remain in the country.

This time, the government has invoked exceptional -- and difficult to challenge -- executive powers to declare him a threat to public health and safety.

Experts say the case has taken on significance beyond the fate of one man who happens to be good at tennis.

"The case is likely to define how tourists, foreign visitors and even Australian citizens view the nation's immigration policies and 'equality before the law' for years to come," said Sanzhuan Guo, a law lecturer at Flinders University.

Djokovic's lawyers argue the government "cited no evidence" to support their claims.

The minister admitted that Djokovic is at "negligible" risk of infecting Australians, but argued his past "disregard" for Covid-19 regulations may pose a risk to public health and encourage people to ignore pandemic rules.

The tennis ace contracted Covid-19 in mid-December and, according to his own account, failed to isolate despite knowing he was positive.