MELBOURNE (Reuters) — The Australian government had not given tennis star Novak Djokovic an assurance that a medical exemption that he said he had to enter Australia without a COVID-19 vaccination would be accepted, government lawyers said in a court filing on Sunday.
The filing ahead of a court hearing on Monday was in defense of the government’s decision to bar entry to the world number one player over his COVID-19 vaccination status.
Djokovic is hoping to win his 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, starting in Melbourne on Jan. 17.
But instead of training, the Serbian player has been confined in a hotel used for asylum seekers and is challenging the decision to cancel his visa after being stopped on arrival at Melbourne Airport early on Thursday.
The drama has rocked world tennis, caused tensions between Serbia and Australia and become a flashpoint for opponents of vaccine mandates around the world.
Himself a vocal opponent of vaccine mandates, Djokovic had declined to reveal his vaccination status or reason for seeking a medical exemption from Australia’s vaccination rules. But his legal team said in a filing to the court on Saturday that the player had been granted an exemption due to having had the virus in December.
Djokovic’s legal team said he had the necessary permissions to enter Australia, including an assessment from the Department of Home Affairs that responses on his travel declaration form indicated he met the conditions for quarantine-free arrival. The government disputed this.
“This is because there is no such thing as an assurance of entry by a non-citizen into Australia. Rather, there are criteria and conditions for entry, and reasons for refusal or cancellation of a visa,” the government’s filing said.
It said the department’s email was not an assurance “that his so-called ‘medical exemption’ would be accepted”, and his responses could be questioned and verified on his arrival.
The government also challenged Djokovic’s claim for a medical exemption on the basis he had contracted COVID-19 and had recovered two weeks later.
“There is no suggestion that the applicant had “acute major medical illness” in December 2021. All he has said is that he tested positive for COVID-19. This is not the same,” the filing said.
Australia says its health department notified tournament organizing body Tennis Australia in November that a recent COVID-19 infection was not necessarily grounds for exemption in the country, as it is elsewhere. Djokovic’s lawsuit says the Department of Home Affairs wrote to him this month to say he had satisfied the requirements to enter the country.
Djokovic’s lawyers will have up to two hours to present their case from 10 a.m. (2300 GMT on Sunday) on Monday, while the government department gets two hours to present its defense from 3 p.m. The case is being heard by the Federal Circuit and Family Court.
Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said in his first media interview since the furor began that his organization had spoken with federal and state officials for months to ensure the safe passage of players.
“Primarily because there is [so] much contradictory information the whole time, every single week we were talking to Home Affairs, we were talking to all parts of government to ensure that … we were doing the right thing and [following] the right process with these exemptions,” Tiley told Channel Nine television.
“The conflicting information, and the contradictory information we received, was because of the changing environment. We are in a challenging environment.”
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, asked about the matter on Channel 9 television, said without referring directly to Djokovic that “there’s a clear difference between visas and entry requirements” and “entry requirements … sit over and above the visa conditions”.
Czech player Renata Voracova, who was detained in the same detention hotel as Djokovic and had her visa revoked after issues with her vaccine exemption, left the country without challenging her status, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.
The player has drawn strong support at home. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said on Saturday that Djokovic had been given gluten-free food, tools to exercise and a SIM card to stay in contact with the outside world.
“It’s a positive tone from the Australian side. The Serbian government is ready to provide all the guarantees necessary for Novak to be allowed to enter Australia, the Serbian president is also involved,” Brnabic said.