Novak Djokovic faces deportation instead of starting his Australian Open title defense on Monday, a stunning and unprecedented end to his run of success at Melbourne Park.
Djokovic has won nine of his 20 Grand Slam trophies at the Australian Open — including three in a row — and was scheduled to play in the main stadium at night on Day 1 of the tournament.
But the No. 1-ranked player in men’s tennis now must leave the country after three federal court judges decided unanimously Sunday to uphold the immigration minister’s right to cancel Djokovic’s visa.
The 34-year-old from Serbia was trying to use a medical exemption to get around the requirements that everyone at the Australian Open — players, their support teams, spectators and others — be inoculated against COVID-19.
Djokovic is not vaccinated, and the government said his presence could stir up anti-vaccine sentiments.
Djokovic released a statement expressing disappointment with the ruling but said he respected the court’s decision, would cooperate with the authorities “in relation to my departure from the country,” and that he planned to take time out “to rest and to recuperate.”
“I am extremely disappointed with the Court ruling to dismiss my application for judicial review of the Minister’s decision to cancel my visa, which means I cannot stay in Australia and participate in the Australian Open,” his statement said. “I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.”
“Finally, I would like to thank my family, friends, team, supporters, fans and my fellow Serbians for your continued support. You have all been a great source of strength to me.”
Australian Open organizers declined to comment immediately on the court’s decision.
Djokovic’s dominance in Grand Slam play of late has been particularly impressive, winning four of the last seven major tournaments and finishing as the runner-up at two others. The only time he did not get at least to the final in that span was at the 2020 U.S. Open, where he was disqualified in the fourth round for hitting a ball that inadvertently hit a line judge in the throat after a game.
On Monday, Djokovic was supposed to play another man from Serbia, Miomir Kecmanovic, in the first round of the season’s opening Grand Slam tournament. Instead, Kecmanovic will face a so-called “lucky loser” — someone who loses in qualifying rounds but gets access to the main draw because someone else withdraws after the order of play for Day 1 was released.
About 90 minutes after the verdict in Djokovic’s challenge was delivered, tournament organizers announced that Salvatore Caruso, an Italian ranked No. 150, had replaced Djokovic in the draw and that the match had been moved to a smaller court in the day session.
Third-seeded Alexander Zverev’s opener against Daniel Altmaier was moved onto Rod Laver Arena.
Patrick Mouratoglou, an elite coach who has worked with Serena Williams among other star players, said the “biggest loser of this mess is the tournament.”
Djokovic’s visa originally was canceled after his flight arrived in Melbourne just before midnight on Jan. 5, but that decision was overturned by a judge on procedural grounds last Monday. He spent four nights in immigration detention before the first court hearing and he was confined to an immigration hotel again on Saturday while awaiting his legal challenge.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended Australia’s tough border policies since news first emerged 10 days ago that Djokovic was in detention, saying at the time that “rules are rules” and that nobody was above the law.
Morrison late Sunday issued a statement saying he welcomed the decision “to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe . . . Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected.”