Djokovic admits Covid mistakes as he fights to avoid Australian deportation

Published January 13, 2022
MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic of Serbia hits a return during a practice session at the Melbourne Park on Wednesday.—Reuters
MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic of Serbia hits a return during a practice session at the Melbourne Park on Wednesday.—Reuters

MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic knew he’d tested positive for Covid-19 when he attended a newspaper interview and photo shoot in Serbia last month, saying Wednesday he made an “error of judgment” and should have immediately gone into isolation.

In a statement posted to his social media accounts, the tennis star also blamed human error by his support team for failing to declare that he had travelled in the two-week period before entering Australia.

Upon arrival, his visa was revoked and then later reinstated in an ongoing saga over whether he should be allowed into the country despite not being vaccinated against Covid-19. The news that Djokovic was granted an exemption to vaccination rules to enter the country provoked an initial outcry and the ensuing dispute has since overshadowed the lead-up to the Australian Open.

Djokovic acknowledged the lapses when he sought to clarify what he called “continuing misinformation about his movements” after he became infected last month though he did not spell out what inaccuracies he was referring to.

The statement was posted while the men’s world number one was in Rod Laver Arena holding a practice session, his third on the tournament’s main court since being released from four nights in immigration detention.

The nine-time and defending Australian Open champion remains in limbo before the year’s first tennis major starts on Monday. The stakes are particularly high since he is seeking a men’s record 21st Grand Slam singles title.

He won a legal battle on procedural grounds Monday that allowed him to stay in the country, but he still faces the prospect of deportation because his exemption from Covid-19 vaccination rules has been questioned. That decision is entirely at the discretion of Australia’s immigration minister if deemed to be in the public interest for health and safety reasons.

Deportation could result in sanctions ranging up to a three-year ban from entering Australia, a daunting prospect for a player who has won almost half of his 20 Grand Slam singles titles here.

With sensitivities heightened as governments and medics worldwide insist vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic, Australia’s top-rating TV network unwittingly revealed the passions behind the scenes.

Two Seven West Media anchors were caught in an expletive-laden “hot mic” off-air conversation condemning Djokovic as sneaky and lying.

Court documents detailing Djokovic’s positive test sparked speculation over the star player’s attendance at events in his native Serbia last month. Further questions also were raised about errors on his immigration form that could potentially result in the cancellation of his visa.

On the form, Djokovic said he had not travelled in the 14 days before his flight to Australia, despite being seen in Spain and Serbia in that period.

In his statement, Djokovic described recent commentary as hurtful and said he wanted to address it in the interest of “alleviating broader concern in the community about my presence in Australia”.

The 34-year-old Serb said he’d taken rapid tests that were negative and he was asymptomatic before he received his positive result from a PCR test he undertook out of an abundance of caution after attending a basketball game in Belgrade on Dec 14.He received the result late Dec 17, he said, and scrapped all his commitments except a long-standing interview with L’Equipe newspaper the following day.

“I felt obliged to go ahead ... but did ensure I socially distanced and wore a mask except when my photograph was being taken,” Djokovic said. “While I went home after the interview to isolate for the required period, on reflection, this was an error of judgment.”

Serbia requires those who are infected with Covid-19 to isolate for eight days, but they can get out early if they test negative.

The L’Equipe reporter who interviewed the athlete wrote in the newspaper that he and a photographer were also masked during the session and kept their distance except for a brief moment as Djokovic said goodbye. The reporter said he tested negative for Covid-19 on Monday, and did not mention the photographer’s status.Meanwhile, Djokovic addressed the Australian travel declaration by saying it was submitted by his support team and “my agent sincerely apologises for the administrative mistake in ticking the incorrect box”.

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

Giving wrong information on the form carries a maximum penalty of 12 months’ prison plus a fine and potential visa cancellation.

The decision could take a while but there is time pressure since the draw to determine brackets for the Australian Open is set to take place Thursday.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawkes office issued a statement saying Djokovics legal team had filed further documents and added: “Naturally, this will affect the timeframe for a decision.”

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

His exemption to compete was approved by the Victoria state government and Tennis Australia, the tournament organisers. That apparently allowed him to receive a visa to travel.

But the Australian Border Force rejected the exemption and canceled his visa upon arrival before a federal judge overturned that decision.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2022

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