Court found it was rational for government to believe people would want to copy top-ranked men’s tennis player
By Rhiannon Hoyle Jan. 20, 2022 2:20 am ET
ADELAIDE, Australia— Novak Djokovic’s last-ditch effort to defend his Australian Open title by having his visa reinstated failed because a court accepted that people, especially youngsters, could emulate the tennis icon’s opposition to being vaccinated.
On Thursday, a panel of three judges at Australia’s federal court said they upheld a decision by immigration minister Alex Hawke to cancel the visa of the men’s tournament’s top seed partly because Djokovic’s presence in Australia had already created unrest, including a Jan. 11 protest involving the player’s supporters.
Djokovic was deported from Australia on Sunday after the court decided earlier in the day that Hawke acted lawfully when he canceled Djokovic’s visa two days earlier, citing public interest. The court didn’t provide the reasons for its ruling at the time.
“Even if Mr. Djokovic did not win the Australian Open, the capacity of his presence in Australia playing tennis to encourage those who would emulate or wish to be like him is a rational foundation for the view that he might foster antivaccination sentiment,” the judges said Thursday.
Djokovic, who is ranked No. 1 in the world for men’s tennis, arrived in Australia earlier in the month with what he believed was an exemption from rules requiring travelers to have received two shots of an approved Covid-19 vaccine. Border officials rejected that exemption and canceled the visa, only for it to be reinstated by a judge who said the correct process hadn’t been followed. Djokovic, who arrived in Melbourne heavily favored to win a record 10th Australian Open title, spent several days in a hotel reserved for asylum seekers while his legal challenges were taking place.
Chief Justice James Allsop, in handing down the panel’s verdict on the eve of the Australian Open, noted the court’s role was to review whether the immigration minister’s decision was legally unreasonable or irrational on specific grounds, not to decide on the merit of the decision itself.
The visa saga drew Australia into a diplomatic spat with Serbia and thrust the player to the center of the debate over vaccine mandates. Djokovic only added to the storm by admitting that he had attended an event last month after a positive PCR test and that a travel document he used to enter Australia contained an error.
When canceling Djokovic’s visa, Hawke argued that the Serb’s continued presence in the country could influence some Australians against getting vaccinated at a time when officials are encouraging the administration of booster shots and advocating jabs for children.
“You should have the freedom to choose, to decide what you want to do. In this particular case, what you want to put in your body,” Djokovic said in November at a tournament in Turin, Italy.
Djokovic’s prior statements were noted in the judges’ ruling, which concluded that it was therefore reasonable for Hawke to find that Djokovic’s stance on vaccines was well known.
“An iconic world tennis star may influence people of all ages, young or old, but perhaps especially the young and the impressionable, to emulate him,” the judges said. “This is not fanciful; it does not need evidence.”
Djokovic’s attorney, Nick Wood, argued on Sunday that Hawke’s reasoning for wanting to deport the vaccine skeptic was flawed because his deportation could also inflame antivaccine sentiment. Hawke’s attorney, Stephen Lloyd, told the court that the minister had noted the protests.
Djokovic’s application for a medical exemption from Australia’s vaccination rules hinged on his infection with, and recovery from, Covid-19 in December. Immigration authorities didn’t accept his exemption, which was provided by Tennis Australia and endorsed by health officials in Victoria state.
Lloyd said Djokovic could easily have agreed to receive a vaccine before his infection. At times, more than 80,000 viewers were streaming Sunday’s court proceedings on YouTube.
Djokovic left Australia on Sunday night and, under Australian migration law, might be blocked from returning for three years.