Novak Djokovic faces deportation again after the Australian government revoked his visa for a second time, the latest twist in the ongoing saga over whether the No. 1-ranked tennis player will be allowed to compete in the Australian Open despite being unvaccinated for COVID-19.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said Friday he used his ministerial discretion to cancel the 34-year-old Serb's visa on public interest grounds — just three days before play begins at the Australian Open, where Djokovic has won a record nine of his 20 Grand Slam titles.
Three hours later, Djokovic's lawyers began their appeal against the visa cancellation in an after-hours hearing at the Federal Circuit and Family Court. The same judge, Anthony Kelly, ruled in favor of Djokovic last week on procedural grounds after his visa was first canceled when he landed at a Melbourne airport.
His lawyer Nick Wood told Kelly he hoped that an appeal will be heard on Sunday and that Djokovic would have his visa returned in time for him to play on Monday.
Djokovic would remain free on Friday night but would effectively return to immigration detention when he meets with Australian Border Force officials at 8 a.m. Saturday.
He would spend the morning at his lawyers' offices under Border Force guard and return to hotel detention on Saturday afternoon.
Deportation from Australia can lead to a three-year ban on returning to the country, although that may be waived, depending on the circumstances.
Hawke said he canceled the visa on "health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so." His statement added that Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government "is firmly committed to protecting Australia's borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic."
Djokovic's main ground of appeal against Hawke's decision was that it was not based on the health risk that the tennis champion might pose by not being vaccinated but on how he might be perceived by anti-vaxxers.
"The minister only considers the potential for exciting anti-vaxx sentiment in the event that he's present," Wood said.
Hawke's reasons do not take into account the potential impact on anti-vaxxers of Djokovic being forcibly removed, Wood said.
"The minister gives no consideration whatsoever to what effect that may have on anti-vax sentiment and indeed on public order," Wood said. "That seems patently irrational."
Morrison himself welcomed Djokovic's pending deportation. The whole episode has touched a nerve in Australia, and particularly in Victoria state, where locals went through hundreds of days of lockdowns during the worst of the pandemic and there is a vaccination rate among adults of more than 90%.
Australia is currently facing a massive surge in virus cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. On Friday, the nation reported 130,000 new cases, including nearly 35,000 in Victoria state. Although many infected people aren't getting as sick as they did in previous outbreaks, the surge is still putting severe strain on the health system, with more than 4,400 people hospitalized. It's also causing disruptions to workplaces and supply chains.
"This pandemic has been incredibly difficult for every Australian but we have stuck together and saved lives and livelihoods. ... Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected," Morrison said. "This is what the Minister is doing in taking this action today."