Voracova the second Australian Open player detained in visa blunder

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Czech tennis player Renata Voracova’s visa was cancelled on Friday night and she was asked to leave the country after being detained by Australian Border Force officials.

A source familiar with the case said the Czech player entered Australia with a vaccine exemption on the basis she had been infected with COVID-19 in the past six months. This was the same reason used by Novak Djokovic.

Vorocova is being held in the same hotel where Novak Djokovic is being detained.Credit:Getty Images

The 38-year-old, who has already played in a warm-up tournament, is being held in the same Park Hotel in Carlton as Djokovic. It is not clear if she will appeal.

The third and final Australian Open participant, an official, who entered Australia using the same exemption has voluntarily left the country, Australian Border Force confirmed on Friday night.

The Victorian Health Department and a Tennis Australia expert panel granted exemptions to the trio because the panels believed a prior infection warranted an exemption.

However, the federal government informed Tennis Australia in November it would not allow international arrivals to bypass vaccine requirements on this basis.

Novak Djokovic with Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley at the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in February last year.Credit:Getty Images

Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley told Australia’s advisory body on immunisation that the viability of the Australian Open depended on whether players who had not been double-vaccinated would be allowed into the country to compete in the tournament.

Without naming Novak Djokovic, Mr Tiley’s letter to the Australian Technical Advisory Group (ATAGI) on Immunisation, sent on November 10 and seen by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, pressed the expert group on whether players with a recent COVID-19 infection or a single dose of vaccine would be exempt from immigration rules requiring people coming to Australia to be fully vaccinated.

“The treatment of players who fall within one of these categories goes to the heart of the viability of the Australian Open,” Mr Tiley wrote to ATAGI.

The letter was written as Djokovic, the tournament’s defending champion, was seeking a visa and an exemption on medical grounds to compete in the tournament. Djokovic has never revealed his vaccination history, but has been publicly sceptical about receiving a coronavirus jab.

Health Minister Greg Hunt and a Health Department official wrote back to Tennis Australia on behalf of ATAGI rejecting the suggestion that a player would be exempt in either case.

In a letter sent to Mr Tiley on November 18, Department of Health First Assistant Secretary Lisa Schofield said that “people who have previously had COVID-19 and not received a vaccine dose are not considered fully vaccinated”.

Ms Schofield said such people would “not be approved for quarantine-free entry, regardless of whether they have received foreign vaccination exemptions”.

Tennis Australia responded to criticism about its handling of exemptions for the first time on Friday night and attributed responsibility partly to Health Minister Greg Hunt.

A statement from Tennis Australia confirmed that in December it informed all players that they could qualify for an exemption if they had a prior COVID-19 infection in the past six months.

“We reject completely that the playing group was knowingly misled,” the statement, sent at 10.14pm on Friday, said.

“Informing players they could get into the country on a medical exemption was taken from the Smart Traveller website that Greg Hunt directly referred us to.”

However, the website does not appear to include information about prior COVID infection being a valid vaccination exemption.

Djokovic is now awaiting a hearing in the Federal Circuit Court on Monday where his lawyers will argue that he should be allowed into the country despite failing to meet the requirement for arrivals to be fully vaccinated.

The tennis great was seeking an exemption to Australia’s vaccination requirements on the grounds that he had recently been infected with COVID-19. Three sources familiar with Djokovic’s paperwork, speaking anonymously to detail confidential documentation, said evidence to support the player’s exemption was “minimal” and was only supported by one doctor.

A legal source with knowledge of the Djokovic case, speaking anonymously to detail confidential legal proceedings, said the player’s case to overturn his deportation was strong and would contain a mix of arguments based on administrative and migration law. “He was shafted,” the source said.

Djokovic’s two-year reign as world No.1 would be put at risk if he was unable to defend his Australian Open title. If either of Daniil Medvedev or Alexander Zverev won the tournament, he could slip down the rankings.

Novak Djokovic’s message of thanks to supporters.Credit:Instagram Stories

Djokovic broke his silence late on Friday night, posting a note to Instagram Stories to thank fans for their support.

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

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald revealed on Thursday that federal health authorities told Mr Tiley on two occasions in writing that people who were not vaccinated and had contracted COVID-19 in the past six months would not be granted quarantine-free travel to Australia.

The Age and The Herald confirmed on Friday that the Victorian government had sought a clarification from Mr Tiley after the letters were revealed on Thursday, with Acting Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan confirming that Mr Tiley and Tennis Australia did not pass this advice onto the Victorian government.

A bid by Djokovic to be moved to a private residence he had rented in Melbourne was rejected by federal authorities. A request for his personal chef to cook him meals at the Park Hotel was also rejected, but he has been allowed to have meals cooked with his specific dietary requirements by the regular chef at the Park Hotel.

Police were posted outside the hotel where the world No.1 was spending Orthodox Christmas on Friday as the combined number of anti-vaccine mandate protesters, refugee advocates and members of the Serbian community swelled to about 200 at midday.

Heavy rain in the afternoon helped slim the numbers to about two dozen Djokovic supporters and a handful of asylum seeker advocates.

Some protesters were dressed in tennis gear to show their support, while others donned Guy Fawkes masks popularised by hacking activist group Anonymous.

Two expert panels – set up by the Victorian Health Department and Tennis Australia – deemed Djokovic eligible for an exemption to play at the Open. However, this exemption applied only to his participation in the Open and held no legal status at the federal border where Commonwealth officials applied their own test to his exemption claims for a visa.

While they have not yet responded to the incident publicly, Tennis officials say privately that they are frustrated with the federal government.

They believe selective information is being provided to the media from reams of correspondence to create a misleading perception that the eligibility of players like Djokovic was clear-cut. The officials argue that there were sets of guidelines and government websites with contradictory information and that communication with federal authorities did not end after the letter exchanges reported by The Age and The Herald.

Victorian government officials and Mr Tiley repeatedly referenced ATAGI guidelines when they detailed processes of the two Victoria-based panels that gave Djokovic an exemption to play in the tournament.

Mr Tiley’s letter says five per cent of players in the Open would be affected if exemptions were not granted for players who had been recently infected or had only had one dose of vaccine.

The letter also references a NSW guideline that indicates a recent infection is a legitimate reason to enter the country without being fully vaccinated.

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The rejection of Djokovic’s visa prompted condemnation from the Serbian’s home country. The Serbian foreign secretary hauled in Australia’s ambassador to the Balkan country to demand Djokovic be moved to a nicer hotel while he is in immigration detention.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said a series of calls between government officials, including Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews and Serbian Premier Ana Brnabic, had taken place.

The star’s father Srdjan Djokovic, who in an earlier interview called his son “a leader of the free world”, told journalists his son was being “held captive”.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews on Friday rejected allegations from Djokovic that he was being held in “captivity” in Australia.

“Well, can I say firstly that Mr Djokovic is not being held captive in Australia. He is free to leave at any time that he chooses to do so, and Border Force will actually facilitate that,” Ms Andrews told the ABC.

Australian tennis strategist Craig O’Shannessy, who was part of Djokovic’s coaching team between 2017-19, told The Age and The Herald that Djokovic may have misread the attitude of the Victorian community by seeking a vaccine exemption.

“When you read the room Down Under, getting vaccinated is a genuine national effort. There is a real ‘we are all in this together’ mentality,” he said.

But despite criticism of his views on vaccination, Djokovic found an unlikely ally in Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios on Friday.

Speaking on Twitter, the Australian said he supported measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, but criticised the handling of Djokovic’s situation.

“Look I definitely believe in taking action, I got vaccinated because of others and for my mum’s health,” Kyrgios said.

“But how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad.

A statement from the breakaway players’ union that Djokovic founded said he is safe and well despite spending the religious holiday of Orthodox Christmas in Melbourne detention.

“The PTPA (Professional Tennis Players Association) has been in close contact with Mr Djokovic, his family and legal counsel, government officials, and Australian Open leadership. Mr Djokovic has verified his well-being to us. He has also requested that we allow him to personally share the facts of his detainment in his own words, and in his own time.

“With the utmost respect for all personal views on vaccinations, vaccinated athletes and the unvaccinated athletes (with an approved medical exemption) should both be afforded the freedom to compete. We will continue to support and advocate for our members, and all players, in a manner that is acceptable to them.”

Four members of Djokovic’s team did not return phone calls and messages on Friday and two declined to comment.

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