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Djokovic readies vaccine exemption case for visa showdown

MELBOURNE (AFP) – Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic readied his legal guns yesterday for a battle to stay in Melbourne and defend his Australian Open title, arguing he has the all-clear because of a positive coronavirus test in December.

Djokovic’s fight to overturn the shock cancellation of his visa and his ensuing detention in a notorious Melbourne immigration facility will culminate in a highly publicised online hearing in federal court today.

The vaccine-sceptic Serbian star awaited the showdown holed up in the former Park Hotel, a five-storey facility that holds about 32 migrants trapped in Australia’s hardline immigration system – some for years.

Nobody is allowed in or out except staff.

More than 100 protesters, many of them migrant rights activists, gathered in a park opposite the hotel.

“Free, free, the refugees,” the crowd chanted as dozens of police stood by.

Large banners were sprawled on the ground, reading: “Justice for refugees”, and “We send love to you every day”. Some men held inside the hotel could be seen watching through the detention centre windows.

Supporters of Serbia’s Novak Djokovic outside Park Hotel in Melbourne. PHOTO: AP

With eight days to go before the January 17 start of the Australian Open, any delay could dash the 34-year-old’s hopes of winning his 10th crown in Melbourne, and a record 21st Grand Slam title.

In an order released to the public yesterday, Judge Anthony Kelly said the case will go ahead as scheduled at 10am today, refusing a government request to adjourn until Wednesday.

Djokovic’s lawyers submitted a 35-page document on Saturday arguing his visa was wrongly cancelled and should be reinstated, allowing him to compete.

The team has argued that Djokovic’s positive PCR test on December 16, 2021 means he meets the criteria for a vaccine exemption under the guidance of Australia’s own immunisation advisory body.

Tennis Australia cleared him for an exemption to play in the tournament, after his application was approved by two independent medical panels, his lawyers said.

Australia’s government, however, insists a recent coronavirus infection only counts as an exemption for residents, not for foreign nationals trying to enter the country.

Foreigners are still mostly banned from travel to Australia, and those granted entry must be fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption.

Despite Djokovic’s claim of a positive test on December 16, pictures shared by the Belgrade tennis federation showed him at a young players’ event in the city on December 17.

It reported that he had handed over cups and prizes to the best young players. No one was wearing a mask.

Djokovic had also attended another gathering on December 16, when the Serbian national postal service launched a series of stamps in his honour.

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