Detained tennis superstar Novak Djokovic gets his day in court as Australian judge hears his make-or-break bid to avoid deportation and challenge for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title.
Novak Djokovic's battle to remain in Australia and bid for a record breaking tennis title has gone to court, with the star player's lawyers and the federal government facing off over his controversial Covid-19 vaccination exemption.
The hearing in the Federal Circuit and Family Court began around 10:30 am (2330 GMT) on Sunday after Judge Anthony Kelly on the weekend refused a request by the government to delay the hearing until Wednesday.
However, technical issues that delayed the start of the virtual hearing also affected a planned live-stream of the session for the public. Court officials said they were working to rectify the problem.
Djokovic, who has been held in an immigration detention hotel since his visa was revoked on his arrival at Melbourne's airport on Wednesday, argues that a recent Covid-19 infection qualified him for the medical exemption from the country's requirement for all visitors to be double vaccinated.
The Australian government, however, said non-citizens had no right of guaranteed entry to Australia and stressed that even if the Serbian won the court action, it reserved the right to detain him again and remove him from the country.
Djokovic stranded in hotel for asylum seekers
Djokovic, the world number one, is hoping to win a record 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, which starts in Melbourne on January 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.
A handful of supporters, one carrying the Serbian flag, gathered outside the hotel on Monday morning, alongside several more activists protesting the detainment of refugees who have been held there for months.
Crowds of Djokovic's supporters had gathered outside the hotel over the weekend, dancing to traditional music and cheering.
Necessary permission granted
Djokovic, a vocal opponent of Covid-19 vaccine mandates, said in a filing to the court on Saturday that he been granted an exemption from vaccination due to having had the virus in December. Paperwork filed to the court showed he was unvaccinated.
His lawyers 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. 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 in mid-December 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.
No love lost for Djokovic
Djokovic, 34, has won the Australian Open nine times and the drama over his refused entry has caused a furore in sporting circles, sparked tensions between Serbia and Australia and become a flashpoint for opponents of vaccine mandates around the world.
The government filing on Sunday stressed that even if the court ruled to free Djokovic from detention and let him play in the Open, under Australian law the government had every right to bar him because he is a non-citizen.
That drew particular ire from Djokovic's father, who addressed another small protest in front of Serbia's parliament building in Belgrade on Sunday.
"Are we animals? What are we? We're human beings. This is happening because we are just a small part of the world, but we are proud. They have no respect for him."
Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said in his first media interview since the furore began that his organisation had spoken with federal and state officials for months to ensure the safe passage of players.
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.