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Serbian president denounces Djokovic ‘harassment’ amid response to visa withdrawal

The Serbian president has accused Australia of “assaulting” tennis star Novak Djokovic, who was refused entry to the country after flying into Melbourne with a medical exemption from the coronavirus vaccination rules.

Djokovic was controversially granted a waiver to enter Australia and participate in the Australian Open, but was held up at Melbourne airport for several hours by authorities before his visa was revoked. The Australian Border Force said it had not provided sufficient evidence to substantiate its exemption.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said the country had supported the world’s number one. “I have told our Novak that all of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything they can to ensure that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is dealt with. There will be an immediate end,” he said in a statement.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected the suggestion of harassment Thursday, saying: “Australia has sovereign borders and clear rules that are non-discriminatory as so many countries do…it has to do with the fair and reasonable application of Australia’s border protection laws…everything I can say that the proof of medical exemption provided turned out to be insufficient.”

In December, Tennis Australia released its Covid vaccination policy for the Melbourne grand slam, which includes a process for players seeking medical exemptions to enter Victoria without undergoing a 14-day quarantine. Djokovic, who is against vaccination, said he had been given an exemption from entering the competition, although the exact nature of it is unclear. The head of Tennis Australia, Craig Tiley, said waivers were anonymized and rigorously reviewed, and only a handful of other players and officials had been exempted from 26 applications.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has steadfastly supported Novak Djokovic. Photo: Marko Djokovic/EPA

The initial endorsement sparked public outcry before the tennis star landed, and the cancellation of his visa only added to the furore.

Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, told Russian media he was outraged by the treatment of his son. “Tonight they can throw him in a dungeon, tomorrow they can handcuff him. The truth is that he is like water and water makes its own path. Novak is the Spartacus of the new world who will not tolerate injustice, colonialism and hypocrisy.”

American player Tennys Sandgren, a quarter-finalist of the Australian Open in 2018 and 2020, said Australia didn’t deserve to host a grand slam. “To be clear, two separate medical boards approved his waiver. And politicians are stopping it,” said Sandgren, who has also chosen not to get vaccinated or participate in the tournament.

Renae Stubbs, a former Doubles World No. 1 and ESPN host, described the situation as “officially one huge shit show”.

“I think ScoMo [Australian prime minister Scott Morrison] made this a moment because the Australian public is so annoyed by Djoker,” she said on Instagram. “I would be ropeable if I were” [Djokovic]. The other lesson is also: get vaccinated.”

Morrison confirmed on Thursday that Djokovic’s visa had been canceled, saying “rules are rules” and praising federal Covid policy, a day after saying such waivers were a matter for state governments. “Our strong border policy has been critical to Australia with one of the lowest death rates in the world from Covid, we remain vigilant,” he said.

Australian tennis legend Rod Laver previously told the Herald Sun newspaper that Djokovic must disclose the medical exemption he has been granted. “Yeah, you’re a great player and you’ve performed and won so many tournaments, so it can’t be physical. So what’s the problem?”

World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty said it was difficult for Australians, and Victorians in particular, during the pandemic, but she had “no interest in talking about Novak’s medical history”. She added: “I understand why they might be frustrated with the decision [to grant Djokovic an exemption].”

The coach of 17-year-old Indian tennis player Aman Dahiya, who was denied an exemption to play the Australian Open junior championships, also accused the Australian and tennis authorities of double standards over Djokovic’s early approval. Dahiya was denied entry for not being vaccinated, as India has not yet allowed people under the age of 18 to receive a vaccine.

His coach, Jignesh Rawal, said they had offered Dahiya to seek a dose and quarantine but were refused, saying Dahiya was allowed “collateral damage” by Australian policy but Djokovic – initially – was not.

“It shouldn’t be any different,” he said. “The circumstances don’t matter. The rule is if you don’t have two doses of vaccine, you can’t get in,” he said. “Djokovic can get special treatment on the pitch (like center court priority), but the entrance must be the same.”

Morrison, who has come under fire for refusing to make rapid tests free or affordable to address large shortages and massive PCR wait times as the country grapples with its worst-ever outbreak, had strong words for Djokovic on Wednesday.

At a press conference, he said Djokovic would be “on the next plane home” if he couldn’t provide proof of his medical exemption.

On Thursday morning, Djokovic was said to have been taken to a quarantine hotel pending the expected deportation.