MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic knew he tested positive for COVID-19 when he attended a newspaper interview and photo shoot in Serbia last month, stating Wednesday that he had made a “mistake of judgment” and should have gone into isolation immediately.
In a statement posted to his social media accounts, the tennis star also blamed his support group for “human error” for not reporting that he had traveled for a two-week period prior to entering Australia.
Upon arrival, his visa was revoked and then reinstated in an ongoing saga about whether he should be allowed to enter the country despite not having been vaccinated against COVID-19. The news that Djokovic had been granted a vaccination exemption to enter the country sparked an initial outcry, and the ensuing controversy has since overshadowed preparations for the Australian Open.
Djokovic acknowledged the omissions when he tried to clarify what he called “ongoing disinformation” about his movements after he contracted the infection last month, although he did not elaborate on what inaccuracies he spoke of.
The statement was released while the # 1 men’s tennis player was at Rod Laver’s arena for training, his third appearance on the main court since being released after four nights in immigration custody.
The nine-time and reigning Australian Open tennis champion remains in limbo until the first tennis tournament of the year kicks off next Monday. The stakes are particularly high as he is aiming for a record 21st men’s Grand Slam singles title.
He won a legal battle on Monday over procedural grounds that allowed him to remain in the country, but he still faces deportation as his exemption from COVID-19 vaccination rules has been questioned. This decision is entirely at the discretion of the Australian Secretary of Immigration if it is deemed to be in the public interest for health and safety reasons.
Deportation could lead to sanctions, up to a three-year ban on entry to Australia, which is a daunting prospect for a player who has won nearly half of his 20 Grand Slam singles titles here.
Court documents detailing Djokovic’s positive test sparked rumors that the star player attended events in his native Serbia last month. Additional questions were also asked about errors in his immigration form that could potentially lead to the cancellation of his visa.
In uniform, Djokovic said he had not traveled 14 days before his departure to Australia, despite being seen in Spain and Serbia at the time.
In a statement, Djokovic characterized the recent comment as “offensive” and said he would like to respond to it in the interest of “allaying broader community concerns about my presence in Australia.”
The 34-year-old Serb said he underwent rapid tests that were negative and had no symptoms before he tested positive for the PCR test, which he performed due to “caution” after attending a basketball game in Belgrade 1 December. 14.
According to him, he received the result late on the evening of December 17 and abandoned all his obligations, except for a long-standing interview with the newspaper L’Equipe the next day.
“I felt compelled to go forward … but kept social distance and wore a mask, except when I was photographed,” Djokovic said. “After the interview, I went home to isolate myself for the necessary period, on reflection it was a misjudgment.”
Serbia is demanding that those infected with COVID-19 be isolated for eight days, but they may exit earlier if they test negative.
The L’Equipe reporter, who interviewed the athlete, wrote in the newspaper that he and the photographer were also masked during the session and kept their distance, except for a brief moment when Djokovic was saying goodbye. The reporter said he tested negative for COVID-19 on Monday and did not mention his status as a photographer.
In the meantime, Djokovic has reached out to the Australian Tourism Declaration, stating that it was filed by his support team, and “my agent sincerely apologizes for the administrative error by ticking the wrong box.”
“It was a human error, and certainly not deliberate,” he wrote. “My team has provided additional information to the Australian government to clarify this issue.”
The decision may take some time, but there is time pressure as the draw for the Australian Open grid is to take place on Thursday.
The office of Immigration Minister Alex Hawke released a statement saying that Djokovic’s team of lawyers submitted additional documents and added: “Naturally, this will affect the timing of the decision.”
The question is whether he has a valid exception to the strict rules requiring vaccinations to enter Australia as he recently recovered from COVID-19.
His waiver was approved by the Victorian government and Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer. This appears to have enabled him to obtain a travel visa.
But the Australian Border Service rejected that exception and canceled his visa on arrival, before a federal judge overturned that decision. The government’s lawyers said the infection was grounds for exclusion only in cases where the coronavirus caused a serious illness, although it is unclear why he was issued a visa in this case.
The initial decision to let him compete sparked complaints that Djokovic was being treated with special treatment, and the subsequent cancellation of his visa sparked accusations that he was targeted once the issue became political. The saga is playing out amid growing concern in Australia about rising COVID-19 cases and the government’s strategy to contain them.
Australian lawyer Greg Barnes, who has experience with visas, told The Associated Press that the Immigration Secretary has a “personal right” to revoke a visa without written notice or a reasonable time for Djokovic to respond.
If Djokovic’s visa is revoked, his lawyers can again petition the court for an injunction that will prevent him from being forced to leave the country.
If instead the government decides to notify it first, Barnes said it could give Djokovic up to nine days to respond.
“This could be a way to give Djokovic a shot at the tournament and then kick him out at the end,” Barnes said.
Sydney-based immigration attorney Simon Jeans said the law is “a lot of fiction” and the Department of Immigration is taking its time to make sure any visa cancellation is “protected from appeal.”
This story has been updated to correct the quoted parts of Djokovic’s statement. It talked about ongoing disinformation, not ongoing disinformation; obliged, not obliged; my team, not a team.
McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia. Associated Press correspondents Dusan Stojanovic from Belgrade, Serbia, and Samuel Petrekin from Brussels contributed to the event.