MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic faced more time in detention, another court hearing and needed to avoid deportation over the weekend just to have a chance of defending his Australian Open title.
The obstacles kept mounting for the nine-time Australian Open champion after his visa was revoked Friday for a second time since he arrived in Melbourne on Jan. 5.
As hard-to-believe a story as there’s been in the run-up to any Grand Slam tournament keeps adding twists and turns and shows no sign of allowing any actual tennis stealing the attention: Djokovic is still hoping to contest the Australian Open despite not having been vaccinated for COVID-19.
But Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used his ministerial discretion to cancel the 34-year-old Serb’s visa on public interest grounds — announcing it at around 6 p.m. — only three days before play is set to begin in the first major tournament of the year.
Three hours later, Djokovic’s lawyers began their appeal in an after-hours hearing in front of the same judge who ruled in favor of the 20-time major champion last week on procedural grounds after his visa was first canceled after he landed at a Melbourne airport.
His lawyers told the court he hoped that an appeal will be heard on Sunday and that Djokovic would have his visa returned in time for him to play next week.
Australian Open organizers then confirmed the top half of the men’s and women’s draws would be contested on Day 1, meaning Djokovic needs to be ready to play on Monday.
He was ordered to report at 8 a.m. Saturday to a meeting with his lawyers and immigration officials and was likely to be put back into detention during the afternoon. He spent four days in an immigration detention hotel before he was released after winning his first court battle on Monday.
Djokovic held practice sessions on Rod Laver Arena every day between when his confinement ended and when his visa was revoked again.
In between, his name was at the top of the men’s bracket, with his No. 1 seeding intact, when he was drawn to face another Serb, Miomir Kecmanovic, in the first round.
Usually, his placement in the same half of the draw as Rafael Nadal — both players are vying for a 21st major title, to break a record they share with Roger Federer — would grab headlines.
A potential semifinal between two of the greats of the game might even have grabbed as much notice as a possible fourth-round contest between top-ranked Ash Barty and defending champion Naomi Osaka in the women’s draw.
But tennis matches have been of secondary interest since Djokovic flew into Melbourne and his exemption to Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination rules was rejected. He won his first court fight, on procedural grounds, but the immigration minister spent the rest of the working week weighing up what to do with the world’s top-ranked male player.
Djokovic’s court documents said he tested positive for the coronavirus last month, grounds that he and Australian Open organizers thought would qualify for an exemption to the everyone-must-be-vaccinated rules.
The federal government disagreed.
Djokovic’s anti-vaccine stance makes him a polarizing figure in a country where coronavirus cases are surging despite more than 90% of the eligible population being vaccinated for COVID-19, and in a city where residents spent more than 260 days in lockdowns during the pandemic. The government’s tough-on-borders approach will have its supporters in Australia, but also plenty of detractors upset at the imagine the saga is presenting to the world.
Nadal warmed up with a title in a tuneup tournament last week in Melbourne, where he noted that Djokovic could have avoided all the drama with two shots — of an approved vaccine.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley has refused for days to answer questions about the tournament’s nine-time champion but Andy Murray, a five-time finalist at Melbourne Park, summed up the situation succinctly.
“It’s not a good situation for anyone,” Murray said. “Just want it obviously to get resolved. I think it would be good for everyone if that was the case.
“It just seems like it’s dragged on for quite a long time now — not great for the tennis, not great for the Australian Open, not great for Novak.”
Djokovic got within one victory of a calendar-year Grand Slam when he lost to Daniil Medvedev in last year’s U.S. Open final.
Medvedev, the runner-up to Djokovic in Melbourne last year and No. 2 seed this time, has local favorite Nick Kyrgios, No. 5 Andrey Rublev, No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, and John Isner in his quarter of the draw and could meet No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals.
Either Barty or Osaka can’t make it that far, after ending up in a tough section that gives their fourth-round match the feel of a final.
The winner could meet No. 5 Maria Sakkari or No. 9 Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.
French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova is also in the same half of the draw, along with 2020 champion Sofia Kenin and Coco Gauff.
Second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, No. 3 Garbiñe Muguruza, two-time major winner Simona Halep and U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu, who opens against 2017 U.S. Open winner Sloane Stephens, are on the opposite half of the draw.
Barty, desperate to end an Australian Open title drought for Aussie women dating back to 1978, warmed up by winning the Adelaide International last weekend.
Former No. 1-ranked Osaka is coming in relatively fresh, after taking a pair of mental health breaks in 2021.
After winning last year’s Australian Open, she withdrew before the second round of the French Open and skipped Wimbledon. After taking another hiatus after the U.S. Open, she slid in the rankings and is seeded 13th.
“Honestly, I still won a Slam last year, so I don’t consider it that bad,” Osaka said. “I feel like whenever I come here, or come back here at the start of the year, it’s like a breath of fresh air.”
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