MELBOURNE: World number one Novak Djokovic remained in limbo even after he was included in the draw for the Australian Open as top seed on Thursday, with the tennis star still awaiting a government decision on whether to deport him for not being vaccinated for Covid-19.

The draw was delayed for an hour without explanation, even as Immigration Minister Alex Hawke mulled whether to exercise discretionary power to cancel Djokovic’s visa over concern about the his medical exemption from Australia’s strict vaccine rules.

Should he still be here, the unvaccinated defending champion will face fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic for his opening match, probably on Monday or Tuesday.

The saga has intensified global debate over rights of choice for vaccines and become a tricky issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he campaigns for re-election.

Australia is due to hold an election by May, and while Morrison’s government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security, it has not escaped criticism over the botched handling of Djokovic’s visa.

Expectations of a pending decision were raised when Morrison called an afternoon news conference after a national Cabinet meeting. Speculation heightened when the tournament draw was postponed by 75 minutes to a time after Morrison’s news conference.

The wait continued after both events concluded, with Morrison referring questions on Djokovic to his immigration minister.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley also declined comment after the draw ceremony for the tournament.

Melbourne’s The Age newspaper said Djokovic would immediately appeal in court any attempt to deport him, with a decision expected on Friday, and tournament organisers preparing contingency plans for a new draw in case.

Djokovic, who practiced again at the Rod Laver Arena on Thursday, fuelled widespread anger in Australia by heading to Melbourne with a medical exemption from requirements for visitors to be inoculated against Covid-19.

On arrival, Australian Border Force decided his exemption was invalid and put him in an immigration detention hotel alongside asylum-seekers at for several days.

A court on Monday allowed him to stay on grounds that officials had been “unreasonable” during the seven-hour interview process in the middle of the night.

The government must now decide whether to let Djokovic remain and bid for a record men’s 21st major title.

Australia has endured some of the world’s longest lockdowns, has a 90% vaccination rate among adults, and has seen a runaway Omicron outbreak bring nearly a million cases in the last two weeks.

Djokovic’s cause was not helped by a wrong entry declaration, where a box was ticked stating he had not travelled abroad in the two weeks before leaving for Australia. In fact, he had travelled between Spain and Serbia.

Djokovic, 34, blamed the error to his agent and acknowledged he also should not have done an interview and photoshoot for a French newspaper on Dec 18 while infected with Covid-19.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2022

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