MELBOURNE: Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic was joined in Australian immigration detention by Czech women’s player Renata Voracova on Friday in a row over Covid-19 vaccines that could scupper the Serbian’s shot at a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam.

Both players were being kept at the modest Park Hotel in inner-city Melbourne, where scores of asylum seekers are also housed behind grey walls and locked windows.

Unlike Djokovic, whose determination to resist deportation and play in the Australian Open has rallied his homeland, 81st-ranked Voracova planned to leave after being caught in similar circumstances, the Czech Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“Renata Voracova decided to drop out of the tournament due to limited possibilities for training and to leave Australia,” it said, adding that it had made a diplomatic protest and that several other players were caught in the same situation.

Djokovic, who opposes mandatory vaccinations and was widely criticised in 2020 for hosting a tournament as the pandemic was first raging, was held at the airport on Wednesday. Authorities revoked a visa granted on the basis of a medical exemption from Australia’s strict vaccination requirements.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) said on Friday that one person had voluntarily left Australia while a third person’s visa had also been cancelled. It did not give names.

The initial decision to grant Djokovic entry outraged many in Australia, which is battling its worst surge of infections and where the adult vaccination rate is more than 90%.

Canberra rejected on Friday suggestions by Serbian supporters, including Djokovic’s family, that he was a prisoner. “He is free to leave at any time that he chooses,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews told reporters.

Djokovic’s lawyers won legal approval for him to remain until a full court hearing against the federal government on Monday. That should reveal more details about the exemption granted to Djokovic and the documentation he provided at the border to support it.

The player on Friday took to Instagram to thank his supporters around the world amid the visa row.

“Thank you to people around the world for your continuous support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated,” he wrote.

The Australian Open begins on Jan 17, but the multi-millionaire superstar sportsman is constrained from training as he spent Orthodox Christmas in a hotel where one Iranian detainee said he had found maggots and mould in the bread.

Djokovic, 34, has not revealed the grounds for his exemption and has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status. He received calls from his native Serbia, including from his parents and the president, who hoped to boost his spirits on the holiday.

During the day, Djokovic’s supporters, waving banners, gathered outside the Park Hotel.

A priest from the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Melbourne asked to visit the nine-time Australian Open champion to celebrate Orthodox Christmas but was turned down by immigration officials because the hotel is under lockdown.

“Our Christmas is rich in many customs, and it is so important that a priest visits him, the church’s dean,” Milorad Locard, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “The whole thing around this event is appalling. That he has to spend Christmas in detention ... it is unthinkable.”

The dispute has become a touchy topic in a city where residents spent 256 days in 2020-21 under severe restrictions on their movement. Djokovic’s exemption stirred allegations the star athlete got special treatment.

While some players have sympathised with his situation, others have said getting vaccinated would have prevented any drama.

But amid the latest turn in the dispute, even some who have been critical of Djokovic in the past are now seemingly in his corner.

“Look, I definitely believe in taking action, I got vaccinated because of others and for my mum’s health, but how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad,” Nick Kyrgios, an Australian player and outspoken critic of some of Djokovic’s opinions on vaccinations, posted on Twitter. “This is one of our great champions but at the end of the day, he is human. Do better.”

Djokovic’s stance on the Covid vaccine has raised questions about his participation in other major tournaments this year.

But France’s sports minister said her country would allow him to play in the French Open, the next Grand Slam tournament of the year, which starts in May, even if he was not vaccinated.

“There are health protocols imposed for major events by the relevant federations which would permit someone like Novak Djokovic to enter the country,” Roxana Maracineanu said.

“In France today we do not have the same regulations as Australia for entry to the country, either for athletes or any citizens from other countries,” she added.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2022

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