The world’s top-ranked men’s tennis star Novak Djokovic is used to winning on court. He pulled off an astonishing victory in court Monday to secure his release from detention—clearing the way for him to take part in tennis’ first major tournament of the year.
The Federal Court of Australia overturned the state’s decision to cancel his visa on a vaccine violation after a hearing fraught with technical glitches that included a Zoom bomber and low bandwidth. The victory will thrill the anti-vaxxer set, for whom Djokovic has become a cult hero. The multimillionaire had never disclosed his vaccine status, citing privacy issues, but documents tied to his medical exemption from the vaccination requirement to enter Australia and a transcript of him telling a border official “I’m not vaccinated” confirmed the obvious.
The 34-year-old Serbian was detained in Melbourne after the Australian Open agreed to let him play in the tournament with a medical waiver despite a rule saying all players had to be vaccinated. Australian officials took a different view, revoking his visa upon entering the country on Jan. 6 and holding him in an immigration hotel for being unable to prove he was vaccinated. The hotel, where some people have been detained for years waiting decisions on their immigration status, was hit with a major COVID-19 outbreak in October.
His lawyer Nick Wood—whose legal firm does require people to be vaccinated to visit their offices—argued that Djokovic had indeed followed all the rules. “What is someone in Mr. Djokovic’s position supposed to understand?” Wood asked the judge. “Any reasonable person would understand, and he did understand, that he had ticked absolutely every box.”
Judge Anthony Kelly agreed, ruling quickly that authorities’ action to cancel the star athlete’s visa was “unreasonable” and that the “back and forth” between various levels of government was a waste of time. “The point that I’m somewhat agitated about is, what more could this man have done,” Kelly told the court. “The transcript is replete with statements by Mr. Djokovic saying, ‘If you will let me talk to people, though you’ve taken my phone from me, I will try and get you what you want’.”
Djokovic had received a medical exemption to compete in this month’s Australian open where he hopes to win his 21st Grand Slam title later this month. Djokovic’s exemption was based on the fact he tested positive for COVID-19 in early December and, as such, did not need to be vaccinated to compete. A copy of his positive PCR test was released as part of the court proceedings, but the date on it—December 16—means that a slew of photos of the maskless athlete with young kids taken on Dec. 17 came after he likely knew he was positive.
But he did need to be vaccinated to enter the country, according to Australia’s Migration Act’s strict anti-COVID measure, which allows for the cancellation of a visa “where the holder poses a risk to the health, safety or good order of the Australian community, or to an individual within the Australian community.”
At the time of his detention, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the decision to revoke his visa. “Tennis Australia said that he could play and that’s fine, that’s their call, but we make the call at the border,” he said on Jan. 6.
After a family press conference based in Belgrade, assisted by British anti-vax politician Nigel Farage, Djokovic tweeted his thanks and determination to compete. “I’m pleased and grateful that the Judge overturned my visa cancellation,” he wrote. “Despite all that has happened,I want to stay and try to compete @AustralianOpen I remain focused on that. I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans.”
A government official reserved the right to act independently to eject Djokovic from the country after examining the judge’s ruling.