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Novak Djokovic is to be deported from Australia and will not compete in the Australian Open after a Federal court rejected his appeal on Sunday evening, local time.
Djokovic had already won one stay of execution, following the Australian Border Force’s decision to deport him ten days ago. But when immigration minister Alex Hawke cancelled his visa for a second time on Friday evening, his options began to narrow.
The Australian government were always in a much stronger position this time around. In order to overturn this ministerial decision, Djokovic’s lawyers either had to show that there was a procedural error in the process, or that Hawke had made an irrational decision.
His lawyers put forward a spirited case during a judicial review on Sunday morning, arguing that Hawke’s intervention – which had been predicated on the grounds of Djokovic being a danger to public health – was misguided.
But while Nicholas Wood, Djokovic’s QC, did a good job of showing how weak the government’s case was, he wasn’t able to demonstrate that it was a crazy call. Just before 6pm (7am GMT), chief justice Allsop ruled that the appeal had been rejected, and ordered Djokovic to pay costs. The reasoning behind the court’s judgement was due to follow on Monday.
"I will now be taking some time to rest and to recuperate,” said Djokovic in a statement. “I am extremely disappointed [but] I respect the court’s ruling. I'll cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from Australia. I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love. I would like to wish the players, tournament officials, staff, volunteers and fans all the best for the tournament.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the ruling, saying the decision will help "keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe".
"It's now time to get on with the Australian Open and get back to enjoying tennis over the summer," he said.
Hawke said he welcomes the unanimous ruling of the judges to uphold his decision "to cancel Mr Djokovic's visa in the public interest".
He adds: "Australia's strong border protection policies have kept us safe during the pandemic, resulting in one of the lowest death rates, strongest economic recoveries, and highest vaccination rates in the world.
"Strong border protection policies are also fundamental to safeguarding Australia's social cohesion which continues to strengthen despite the pandemic."
Security likely to be beefed up for Aus Open
Djokovic’s ejection from Australia means that his tilt at a potential 21st major title – which would break the three-way tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the top of the leaderboard – will have to wait until at least the French Open in May.
Meanwhile, from the Australian Open’s perspective, enhanced security is likely to be necessary for the first few days. There could be protests from the strong local Serbian community, or indeed from the same type of anti-vaxx activists who waved banners outside the gates of Melbourne Park on Saturday.
This, in fact, was the strongest thrust of Wood’s argument. He told the Federal court that Hawke’s decision – which was made on the grounds that Djokovic’s presence in Australia might inflame anti-vaxx sentiment – had failed to address what he called the “counter-factual” possibility: that ejecting Djokovic could have exactly the same effect.
It was a strong argument, and one that Stephen Lloyd SC – the government’s lawyer – found difficult to rebut convincingly. But in order for Wood to win his case, he would have needed to show that this was a procedural error on Hawke’s part, rather than simply a weak point in his logic.
Djokovic’s last-minute exit leaves the Australian Open’s men’s draw looking thoroughly unbalanced. Tournament organisers released Monday’s order of play at 4.10pm, and as soon as that happened, the rules around last-minute replacements meant that the seeds could no longer be reshuffled.
Salvatore Caruso is the man taking Novak's spot on line one of the draw. And his match has been replaced in Monday's headline spot by Alexander Zverev v Daniel Altmaier. This is excellent news for Matteo Berrettini, the world No7, who now becomes the highest seed in the top quarter. And it could also favour British No1 Cameron Norrie, the only Briton in action on Monday.
Even with Djokovic out of the country, the shockwaves surrounding this story are likely to continue throughout the tournament. Still, the players will be relieved that the on-court action is finally due to start within the next 16 hours.