Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s tennis player in the world, left Australia on Sunday and lost his chance to compete in the Australian Open after a battle with the country’s immigration officials over whether he should be exempt from COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
The tournament begins Monday, and Djokovic had traveled to the country under a visa that granted him a medical exemption from being vaccinated because he had recently recovered from COVID. But after public outcry from Australians, who have faced stringent border restrictions and lockdowns during the pandemic, his visa was canceled Jan. 6.
After back-and-forth within Australia’s judicial system, Djokovic on Sunday lost his final chance to legally remain in the country when a federal court upheld Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa “in the public interest.” Hawke tweeted Sunday that Djokovic had left Australia, and photographs showed him at Melbourne Airport, where he reportedly boarded a flight to Dubai.
“Australia’s strong border protection policies have kept us safe during the pandemic, resulting in one of the lowest death rates, strongest economic recoveries, and highest vaccination rates in the world,” Hawke said in a statement.
Hawke added that 91.6% of Australians over age 16 have now been fully vaccinated, and only because of the country’s vaccination program have some international travel restrictions been lifted. Australia banned international travel for much of the pandemic, and it has begun allowing travel only since November for people who are fully vaccinated or who fit into a series of specific exemptions.
“Australians have made great sacrifices to get to this point and the Morrison Government is firmly committed to protecting this position, as the Australian people expect,” Hawke said.
In a statement, Djokovic said he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić told reporters he believed the decision was political and described it as a witch hunt.
Djokovic had been poised to compete for what could have been a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.