Tennis world No. 1 Novak Djokovic spent Orthodox Christmas in Australian immigration detention on Friday as his lawyers fought a government decision to remove him from the country that could scupper his shot at a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam.
As the chaotic row escalated, officials said two other players who entered Australia under the same exemption initially granted to the Serbian ace were under investigation.
ABC News reported that the Australian Border Force (ABF) had cancelled the visa of Czech women’s player Renata Voracova and detained her in the same hotel as Djokovic.
Border officials detained Djokovic at Melbourne’s airport when he arrived on Wednesday and revoked a visa granted on the basis of a medical exemption from Australia’s strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
The initial decision to grant him entry outraged many in Australia, where the adult vaccination rate is more than 90% that is battling its worst surge of coronavirus infections.
The Australian government pushed back on Friday against suggestions by Serbian supporters, including Djokovic’s family, that he was effectively a prisoner.
“He is free to leave at any time that he chooses to do so and Border Force will actually facilitate that,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews told reporters.
Djokovic’s lawyers successfully scrambled for legal approval for him to remain until a full court hearing against the federal government on Monday.
The hearing should reveal more details about the exemption granted to Djokovic and the documentation he provided at the border to support it.
The 34-year-old has not revealed the grounds for the exemption and has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status, while publicly criticising mandatory doses.
Vaccines are not mandatory in Australia but are required for a range of activities.
As he was confined for a second day to his room in the modest Park Hotel, where several Afghan immigration detainees have been held for months, Djokovic’s plight was met with a mixed response from rivals in elite tennis.
Former World No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champion Boris Becker said Djokovic, who he has coached, was making a big mistake with his anti-vaccination stance.
“It is one that threatens what remains of his career and his chance to cement himself as the greatest player of all time,” Becker wrote in the Daily Mail newspaper.
Spanish champion Rafael Nadal told reporters in Melbourne he felt sorry for his rival “but at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago”.
Australia’s Nick Kyrgios said he believed in vaccination “but how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad”.
Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, posted a photo on Instagram of the couple embracing on a beach to mark Orthodox Christmas, saying “the only law that we should all respect across every single border is love and respect for another human being”.
His family held an emotional news conference at his restaurant in Belgrade on Thursday before protesting in front of parliament, with his father Srdjan saying “they are stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia”.
Djokovic had received permission to enter Victoria without a vaccination from the state government, which does not have authority to issue visas to international visitors. While the reason for his medical exemption was not officially released, The Age newspaper reported it was because he had contracted COVID-19 in the past six months.
Tennis Australia and Victoria government officials said Djokovic had received no preferential treatment, adding that he was among a handful of approvals for exemptions in an anonymous and independent assessment of 26 applications.
Tennis Australia has not commented on the matter since Djokovic was detained.