Novak Djokovic given green light to play at Australian Open as government rescinds visa ban




Novak Djokovic beats Stefanos Tsitsipas in Turin - MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images
Novak Djokovic beats Stefanos Tsitsipas in Turin - MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images  

Novak Djokovic will play at the Australian Open, it emerged on Tuesday morning. Government sources have privately briefed a number of news organisations that Djokovic's three-year visa ban is to be overturned.

The decision - which originates from immigration minister Andrew Giles - will avoid the ridiculous situation where unvaccinated tourists are able to enter Australia while the nine-time champion in Melbourne is denied.

Giles's green light will change the complexion of the tournament and of the overall race to finish with the most grand-slam titles, as Djokovic will go into Melbourne as the runaway favourite to lift a 10th title at the end of January.

But it will be interesting to see how the local fans respond to him. Djokovic did not make himself popular with his attempt to play last year's Australian Open, which came at a time when Covid was a far bigger issue in the world's most locked-down city.

At the time, the majority of the Australian public said they supported the dramatic deportation of Djokovic, which was confirmed on the eve of the tournament after a legal battle. The then immigration minister Alex Hawke argued that - had he stayed in the country - Djokovic would have provided a focus for anti-vaxx sentiment.

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic walks in Melbourne Airport before boarding a flight, after the Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa - REUTERS/Loren Elliott
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic walks in Melbourne Airport before boarding a flight, after the Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa - REUTERS/Loren Elliott  

The whole saga stemmed from Djokovic's refusal to accept the Covid vaccine, and his attempt to use a recent Covid infection - the veracity of which was questioned in some quarters - as a way of outflanking Tennis Australia's rules.

The Liberal government which oversaw that fiasco was deposed in May and replaced by Labor, led by new prime minister Anthony Albanese. It may or may not be relevant that Albanese is an enthusiastic tennis fan and player, who recently invited the winner of a charity auction to face him across the net.

To clarify the small print around Djokovic's situation, anyone deported from Australia receives an automatic three-year visa ban, which then has to be overturned by the government if that person is to re-enter the country more quickly.

The first whispers of a likely softening on the issue appeared in an Australian newspaper in August. Some insiders suggested that the government were floating the idea gently in an attempt to gauge public sentiment, and that there had been no great outcry in response.

Djokovic's presence will certainly make the Australian Open more authentic. Remarkably, only one of this year's four grand slams enjoyed a full field of contenders on the male side. Djokovic's stance on the vaccine meant that he was missing from Australia and the USA, while Russia's Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev were not invited to Wimbledon because of the war in Ukraine.

Judging by Monday night's match at the ATP Finals in Turin, in which Djokovic overcame world No3 Stefanos Tsitsipas with a world-class performance, he will be extremely difficult to stop in Melbourne. His ranking is artificially low at No8, because of all the tournaments he was unable to play last year, but most experts consider him to be the best player in the world by a considerable margin.

On the overall leaderboard of grand-slam titles, Djokovic has 21, one ahead of Roger Federer but one behind Rafael Nadal. Few would bet against him taking a share of the lead in Australia.

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