Tennis: Djokovic included in Australian Open draw as visa decision looms

Novak Djokovic fuelled widespread anger in Australia last week when he announced he was heading to Melbourne for the Australian Open with a medical exemption from requirements for visitors to be inoculated against Covid-19. PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Tennis world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was included in the Australian Open draw on Thursday (Jan 13), although uncertainty remained about whether the government would cancel the top seed's visa for a second time.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke is weighing exercising his discretionary powers to revoke the Serb's visa over concerns about the star's medical exemption from Australia's Covid-19 vaccination requirements.

Djokovic, who was out practising on Rod Laver Arena earlier on Thursday, drew unseeded fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic for his opening match, which is expected to be played on Monday or Tuesday.

Organiser Tennis Australia had delayed the official draw for more than an hour, without explanation.

Djokovic, a vaccine sceptic, fuelled widespread anger in Australia last week when he announced he was heading to Melbourne for the Australian Open with a medical exemption from requirements for visitors to be inoculated against Covid-19.

On his arrival, Australian Border Force officials decided his exemption was invalid and he was held alongside asylum seekers at an immigration detention hotel for several days.

A court on Monday allowed him to stay on the grounds that officials had been "unreasonable" in the way they handled his interview in a seven-hour process in the middle of the night.

The Australian government, which has won strong support at home for its tough stance on border security before and during the pandemic, must now decide whether to let him remain and bid for a record 21st Grand Slam title.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to comment on Djokovic's visa on Thursday, saying that it was up to the Immigration Minister to decide whether to revoke it or not.

Mistakes made

Djokovic's cause was not helped by a mistake in his entry declaration, where the box stating he had not travelled abroad in the two weeks prior to leaving for Australia was ticked.

In fact, he had gone to Spain from Serbia.

Djokovic, 34, attributed the error to his agent and acknowledged he also should have rescheduled an interview and photo shoot for a French newspaper on Dec 18 while infected with Covid-19.

Fans, including many Serbian Australians, gave him noisy support when he was detained, anti-vaxxers have hailed him as a hero and his family have portrayed him as a champion for individual rights.

But Djokovic may face hostility from the crowd if and when he walks out on court.

There is widespread anger over the saga among Australians, who have a 90 per cent vaccination rate among adults and are battling a wave of the Omicron variant after enduring some of the world's longest lockdowns aimed at curbing the pandemic.

"I don't like his arrogance," Teyhan Ismain, a Melbourne resident, said on Wednesday. "It does seem that he's been telling a few fibs too. So I think he should just probably go back."

There may also be resentment in the dressing room, where all but three of the top 100 men are inoculated.

Tennis great Martina Navratilova told Australian television Djokovic should "suck it up" and return home.

"The bottom line is, sometimes your personal beliefs have to be trumped by what's good for the greater good, for those around you, for your peers," she told Seven's Sunrise programme. "You have two choices - get vaccinated or just don't go play."

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