The world’s top male tennis player, Novak Djokovic, spent a conservative Christmas at an immigration detention hotel in Australia on Friday, as he sought to stop deportation over the country’s COVID-19 rules and compete at the Australian Open.
Djokovic received calls from his native Serbia, including his parents and the president, who hoped to boost his spirits on the holiday.
On Instagram he posted: “Thank you people all over the world for your continued support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated.”
The 34-year-old athlete and vaccine skeptic was barred from entering the country late Wednesday after federal border officials at Melbourne airport denied his medical exemption for Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
He has been confined to the Detention Hotel in Melbourne pending a court hearing on Monday, a week before the tournament begins, where he is trying to win his record-breaking 21st Grand Slam singles title.
During the day, Djokovic’s supporters, waving banners, gathered outside the Park Hotel, housing refugees and asylum seekers.
A priest at Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Melbourne asked to meet the nine-time Australian Open champion to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, but immigration officials turned it down as the hotel is under lockdown.
“Our Christmas is rich with many customs, and it is so important that a priest visits him,” the church’s dean Milorad Locard told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. In custody… it’s unimaginable.”
The Australian Border Force said on Friday that after further investigation into two others linked to the Australian Open, one left the country voluntarily, and the other was taken into custody for deportation.
The Czech embassy identified one of them as 38-year-old doubles player Renata Vorasova and said she would not play in the tournament.
Australia’s COVID-19 rules say arriving travelers must have two shots of an approved vaccine or be exempt with a genuine medical reason, such as a serious condition, to avoid quarantine. All players, staff, officials and fans are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the tournament venue.
Djokovic flew to Australia after receiving a medical exemption supported by the country’s tennis federation and approved by the Victoria state government. The reasons for the exemption have not been disclosed. But the Australian government declared it invalid upon his arrival.
The controversy has become a touching topic in a city where residents spent 256 days in 2020-21 under severe restrictions on their movement. Djokovic’s waiver sparked allegations that the star athlete was treated unfairly.
While some players have expressed sympathy for his situation, others have said that vaccination could prevent any play.
But amid the latest twist in the controversy, even some people who have been critical of Djokovic in the past are now in his corner.
Nick Kyrgios, an Australian player and outspoken critic of some of Djokovic’s opinions, said: “Look, I certainly believe in taking action, I’ve been vaccinated for the sake of others and for my mother’s health, but we don’t believe in Novak.” How are you handling the situation, it’s very, really bad.” On vaccination, posted on Twitter. “It’s one of our great champions but at the end of the day, he’s human. Do better.”
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tilly said earlier this week that 26 people associated with the tournament had applied for medical exemptions and that only a “handful” had been granted. Three of them have since been challenged.