Djokovic clarifies movements, Australian visa saga continues

The Associated Press
Defending men’s champion Serbia’s Novak Djokovic practices on Rod Laver Arena ahead of the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 12.

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic knew he had tested positive for COVID-19 when he attended a newspaper interview and photo shoot at his tennis center in Serbia last month, saying Wednesday he made an “error of judgement” and should have immediately gone into isolation.

Djokovic moved to clarify “ongoing misinformation” about his movements while he was infectious last month and about errors on the travel document he used to enter Australia, where his visa was revoked and then reinstated in a COVID-19 vaccination saga that has overshadowed the days leading up to the Australian Open.

A statement was posted on Djokovic’s social media accounts while the men’s tennis No. 1 was in Rod Laver Arena holding a practice session against Tristan Schoolkate, a 20-year-old Australian.

The nine-time and defending Australian Open champion is in limbo before the year’s first tennis major starts next Monday, a week after he won a legal battle allowing him to stay in the country.

But he still faces the prospect of deportation because he’s not vaccinated against COVID-19, a decision entirely at the discretion of Australia’s immigration minister if deemed to be in the public interest.

Reports emerged that Djokovic attended events in his native Serbia last month after testing positive on Dec. 16, including presenting awards to children on Dec. 17. There’s also been speculation that errors on his immigration form could potentially result in the cancellation of his visa.

On the form, Djokovic said he had not traveled in the 14 days before his flight to Australia. The Monte Carlo-based athlete was seen in Spain and Serbia in that two-week period.

Djokovic on Wednesday described the speculation as “hurtful” and said he wanted to address it in the interest of “alleviating broader concern in the community about my presence in Australia.”

Djokovic said he’d taken rapid tests that were negative and he was asymptomatic in the days before he received his positive result from an approved PRC test he undertook out of an “abundance of caution” after attending a basketball game on Dec. 14 “where it was reported that a number of people tested positive.”

He received the result late Dec. 17 and said he scrapped all his commitments except the long-standing interview with L’Equipe.

“I felt obligated to go ahead … but did ensure I socially distanced and wore a mask except when my photograph was being taken,” Djokovic said in the statement. “While I went home after the interview to isolate for the required period, on reflection, this was an error of judgement and I accept that I should have rescheduled the commitment.”

He addressed the travel declaration by saying it was submitted on his behalf by his support team and that “my agent sincerely apologizes for the administrative mistake in ticking the incorrect box.”

“This was a human error and certainly not deliberate,” he wrote. “The team has provided additional information to the Australian Government to clarify this matter.”

At issue is whether he has a valid exemption to rules requiring vaccination to enter Australia since he recently recovered from COVID-19.

The decision could take a while. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s office issued a statement saying Djokovic’s legal team had filed further documents against the the potential cancellation of his visa and added: “Naturally, this will affect the timeframe for a decision.”

There’s growing concern in the community, meanwhile, with COVID-19 cases surging.

Victoria state, whose capital Melbourne is hosting the Australian Open starting next week, reported 21 deaths Wednesday along with 40,127 new cases.

Deputy Premier James Merlino said the state’s healthcare system is strained, with around 6,600 workers off duty after testing positive or coming into close contact with a positive case, and new pandemic orders are coming into force to make booster shots mandatory for critical workers.

Hobart, Australia-based immigration lawyer Greg Barnes told The Associated Press that if Hawke does take action, he could choose to simply cancel Djokovic’s visa or give the tennis star notice of his intention to cancel it.

Barnes said Hawke has “a personal power,” which means he doesn’t have to accord natural justice if he decides it’s in the public interest to cancel the visa.

If Djokovic’s visa is canceled, his lawyers could go back to court to apply for an injunction that would prevent him from being forced to leave the country.

Hawke “can go the natural justice route (but) he doesn’t have to comply with natural justice, so he can just cancel it,” Barnes said. ”Then you have to go to court to try to get that set aside and that’s very difficult.”

If the government does issue a notice of intent, Barnes said it could give Djokovic five to nine days to respond, depending on when he receives it.

“That might be a way of giving Djokovic a chance in the tournament and then kicking him out at the end of that,” Barnes said. “In my experience, it’s relatively rare for them to change their mind.”