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Tennis: Djokovic detention becomes political issue in Australia

SYDNEY –

On the tennis court, Novak Djokovic’s timing was perfect. But when he arrived in Australia to play his first Grand Slam of the year with paperwork allowing him to enter the country without a COVID-19 vaccine, his time could hardly have been worse.

When Djokovic landed in Melbourne on Wednesday, he found himself in a city besieged by rising virus infections.

Border officials denied Djokovic’s documents, canceled his visa and ordered him to leave the country in a move cheered by many Australians. The tennis star’s outspoken opposition to a COVID-19 vaccine has gone awry in a city where 92% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

Djokovic is appealing the order to leave and currently remains in Melbourne.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who did not oppose Tennis Australia’s decision and the Victorian state government to grant Djokovic immunity from vaccination, quickly accepted his decision to deny entry, raising questions about whether The world’s top men’s tennis player – and the defending Australian Open champion – was seen as a scapegoat.

“No one is above these rules,” Morrison said. “Our strong border policies are critical to Australia having one of the lowest COVID mortality rates in the world. We are continuing to remain vigilant.”

Former Australian Open director and Davis Cup player Paul McNamee thinks Djokovic’s treatment is unfair.

“He’s playing by the rules, he’s got his visa, he’s coming in, he’s a nine-time champion and whether people like it or not, he has a right to fair play,” McNamee told Australian Broadcasting Corp. told Australian Broadcasting Corp. between the state and the federal government.

“I hate to think that politics is involved but it feels like it.”

During the first two years of the pandemic, under Morrison’s leadership, Australia pursued a COVID-zero policy, seeking to eliminate the virus through strict border controls and local lockdowns. Australians cannot travel abroad except in exceptional circumstances and many people living abroad are unable to return, creating difficulties for separated families.

In recent months, Morrison’s government has shifted to a co-living COVID approach that includes open borders and a softer touch on domestic restrictions. He made the changes as soon as the highly contagious omicron variant took effect.

Morrison, who is seeking re-election in March, has faced heavy criticism for the new strategy. But he points to Australia’s low death rate and strong economy – both among the best in the world – as evidence that he can steer the country through the crisis.

“We have no choice but to ride the wave (the omicron case). “What’s the alternative? What we have to do is click.”

Morrison has also been criticized for not securing enough rapid antigen tests to relieve pressure from PCR testing sites, where wait times in some states have exceeded five hours. He refused to make rapid tests widely available and free.

Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, has been hardest hit by the current rise in omicrons, which emerged after Premier Dominic Perrottet eased mask and other regulations. Other states have been slower to relax virus-related restrictions, creating tension between Australia’s states and the federal government.

Djokovic’s visa cancellation is not accepted in his native Serbia, where he is a national hero. The president of Serbia condemned the move and Djokovic’s family has voiced anger at what they describe as an insult to the Serbian people.

“You, the famous Prime Minister (Morrison) of a naturally beautiful country far away, are behaving according to your own principles, which have nothing to do with us and our principles,” said Djokovic’s father , Srdan told reporters. “We are human, and you, sir, are not.”

Djokovic had to wait for the court process at the budget Park Hotel in Melbourne. The residents there include refugees and asylum seekers who have been transferred from Australia’s offshore detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru. In October, an outbreak of COVID-19 at the hotel infected about half of the 46 asylum seekers who were subsequently detained there.

Djokovic’s brother Djordje said the tennis star was “taken to a hotel for migrants, to a dirty room without any furniture.”

“He was treated like a criminal, while he was a healthy and decent man and a sportsman who did not endanger anyone’s life and did not commit any crime. violate any federal or legal law,” Djordje added.

Melbourne reported 21,728 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, in addition to six deaths and an increase in hospitalizations. By 9 a.m., 18 state-run PCR testing sites had reached capacity and were closed.

In 2020 and 2021, Melbourne is the quietest city in the world and residents have experienced 256 days of severe restrictions on movement and gathering. Djokovic landed in the city in that context, while also refusing to discuss the status of his vaccine or explain why his health-based exemption was granted.

The process that led to that decision is now under scrutiny. Tennis Australia insists Djokovic’s immunity is granted by an independent panel of blind medical professionals, unaware of whose vaccination application they are evaluating.

It is not yet known how Djokovic was able to get on the plane in Dubai and why he was not told he could be turned back to the Australian border. The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday published a letter from federal health officials to Tennis Australia stating that Djokovic cannot enter Australia if the reason for his exemption from the vaccine is that he has contracted COVID-19. within the past six months.

The cases of two other Australian Open players who are also exempted based on health due to vaccination are currently being closely examined.

Outside the Park Hotel on Friday, protesters against the detention of asylum seekers held up placards that said “free the refugees.”

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