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SYDNEY, Australia — On the tennis court, Novak Djokovic’s timing is perfect. But when the No. 1 player boarded a plane for Australia to play the first Grand Slam of the year with a COVID-19 vaccine exemption, his timing hardly could have been worse.
While he was in the air, the game apparently shifted — and he was denied entry when he landed. Some are saying politics is at play in a country seeing a virus surge and debating how best to beat it back.
Australian officials initially said Djokovic, a vocal skeptic of vaccines who has refused to say if he got the COVID-19 shot, would be given an exemption to stringent vaccine rules by state authorities and be able to participate in the Australian Open.
But when he landed, his visa was canceled by federal border officials and he's now in an immigration detention hotel while he fights the decision.
It's not clear what caused the reversal, but the news of the exemption led to an outcry that the star was receiving special treatment from Australia, which has seen some of the world's most stringent pandemic rules.
Djokovic’s refusal to discuss his vaccine status or explain why his health-based exemption had been granted didn’t sit well in Open host Melbourne, where 92% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated and where cases are rising.
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 already reached capacity and closed.
In 2020 and 2021, Melbourne residents spent 256 days under severe restrictions on movements and gatherings.
Against that backdrop, many in Australia have cheered the decision to block Djokovic’s arrival.
Columnist Peter FitzSimons wondered how it could be any other way.
“The first grand slam of the year is, after all, held in one of the most locked-down cities on the planet, where the people have made extraordinary sacrifices to keep the population as healthy as possible,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. “And he was meant to just waltz on in, be the exception to the rule, just because he could hit a ball well?”
On social media, many shared that sentiment, with one poster complaining that during the lockdowns he could not fly to Australia from Britain to attend family funerals, and so the tennis star should not be allowed in.
But some say the athlete is being made a scapegoat.
“The guy played by the rules, he got his visa, he arrives, he’s a nine-time champion and whether people like it or not he’s entitled to fair play,” Former Australian Open tournament director and Davis Cup player Paul McNamee told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “There’s no doubt there’s some disconnect between the state and the federal government."
“I hate to think politics are involved, but it feels that way,” he added.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had not initially objected to the decision of Tennis Australia and the Victoria state government to grant Djokovic an exemption, quickly embraced the move by the federal Border Force to deny him entry.
“No one is above these rules,” Morrison said. “Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID. We are continuing to be vigilant.”
In recent months, Morrison’s government has pivoted to a living-with-the-virus approach that includes more open borders and a lighter touch on domestic restrictions. He implemented the changes just as the highly contagious omicron variant started to take hold.
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 he can steer the country through the crisis.
“We have no choice but to ride the wave (of omicron cases),” he said. “What’s the alternative? What we must do is press on.”
Morrison has also been criticized for failing to secure enough rapid antigen tests to take pressure off PCR testing sites where waiting times in some states have exceeded five hours. He has refused to make rapid tests widely available and free.
Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, has been hardest hit by the current omicron surge, which emerged after state Premier Dominic Perrottet relaxed mask mandates and other rules. Other states have been slower to relax virus-related restrictions, creating tension between Australia's states and the federal government.
The cancellation of Djokovic’s visa has also rubbed many in his native Serbia, where he has long been a national hero, the wrong way. The Serbian president condemned the move and Djokovic's family voiced anger at what they portrayed as an affront to the Serbian people.
“You, famous Prime Minister (Morrison) of the faraway naturally beautiful country, are behaving according to your own principles, which have nothing to do with us and our principles,” Djokovic’s father Srdan told reporters. “We are humans, and you, sir, are not.”
Djokovic has been left to wait out the court process at a Melbourne hotel that also houses refugees and asylum-seekers who have been transferred from Australia’s off-shore detention centers. In October, a COVID-19 outbreak at the hotel infected about half of the 46 asylum-seekers then being held there.
Djokovic’s brother Djordje said the tennis star had been taken “to a dirty room without any belongings."
“He was treated like a criminal, while he is a healthy and decent man and a sportsman who has not endangered anyone’s life and has not committed any federal or legal offence,” Djordje added.
The process that led to the original decision to grant Djokovic an exemption is now under scrutiny. Tennis Australia insists the exemption was granted by an independent panel of medical experts, unaware of whose applications they were assessing.
In an email, the border force said following investigations into two other cases of people connected to the Open, “one individual has voluntarily departed Australia ... and the visa of a third individual has been canceled.”
The embassy for the Czech Republic in Canberra identified 38-year-old doubles player Renata Voráčová as one of the people involved — and said she planned to leave the country as soon as possible.
This story has been updated to remove the dateline because the reporter is not in Sydney.
Steve Mcmorran, The Associated Press