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Novak Djokovic is one of the best tennis players the world has ever seen, but he now faces a potentially career-defining weekend in a court where he is not the natural master.
The 34-year-old world number one wants to compete in next week’s Australian Open in search of a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam victory, to put the cherry on a glittering career and be declared the undisputed ‘greatest of all time’.
But the build-up to the Melbourne tournament has been overshadowed by Djokovic not being vaccinated against Covid-19, his alleged anti-vax views, unprecedented spells in immigration detention, and a titanic battle with Australia’s top politicians.
On Saturday, Djokovic will make his case to remain in Australia to play in the Grand Slam event, hoping to avoid deportation that would cast a long shadow over his stellar tennis career.
What’s happened so far?
Speculation was rife that Djokovic may struggle to compete in the 2022 Australian Open thanks to the country’s tough Covid-19 rules and the player’s publicly-declared opposition to vaccines for the virus.
On January 5, he flew into Melbourne in the belief that an exemption from Tennis Australia had cleared his passage into the country.
Djokovic says he has a valid medical reason for not having the vaccine, that he tested positive for Covid-19 in mid-December which gave him a natural level of immunity, and he had complied with Australia’s visa travel rules.
But he was taken for questioning by Border Force agents after landing at the airport, before dramatically being taken into immigration detention because his visa had been cancelled.
Djokovic spent several days in a secure hotel, before a judge on Monday overturned the decision to quash the tennis ace’s visa – apparently clearing the way for him to compete at the Rod Laver Arena from next Monday.
However, the next twist came via immigration minister Alex Hawke, who on Friday exercised his power to strip Djokovic of his visa once more, citing fears that the player’s presence in the country would “excite” the anti-vaxxers.
What happens next?
Djokovic’s case has now been passed on to the Federal Court of Australia, with a preliminary hearing scheduled before Justice Davi O’Callaghan at 10.15am in Australia.
The government is set to defend its position that it is entitled to cancel Djokovic’s visa “on health and good order grounds”.
A court has heard Mr Hawke took the stance of assuming Djokovic did not break any Australian laws when flying into the country, that he does not pose a health risk to others, and he is carrying a level of immunity thanks to his December positive test.
Despite that, the minister decided to withdraw the visa because the player’s continued presence in the country could cause “excitement in the anti-vax community”.
The player’s legal team say Mr Hawke made errors in his decision, including not contemplating what impact Djokovic’s deportation would have on vaccine sceptics.
They say he is a man of good character, who the government has accepted complied with its rules, and he should be entitled to a visa under normal rules.
Could Djokovic still win?
If the court sides with Djokovic, he would walk free from immigration detention and potentially be ready to take his place in the Australian Open first round.
He would emerge with his visa intact and no other legal obstacles to pulling on his tennis shoes, albeit it with his pre-match preparations in disarray.
What would be less certain is the reaction of fans to his continued presence in a country which has imposed some of the tougher Covid-19 restrictions in the world.
The Australian government has been criticised for its handling of the affair so far, but public opinion is still tilted against Djokovic’s continued presence.
What if he loses?
Djokovic would likely have run out of legal avenues and be put on a flight out of Australia, back to his native Serbia.
His deportation – blocking his participation in this year’s Grand Slam - would also come with a three-year ban from returning to Australia, and at 34 this could mean the end of his chances of ever notching-up a tenth title.
The ban could be waived by the government in future years, but chances of this seem remote after a bitterly contested visa battle.
Are there any other options?
Djokovic could opt to walk away now, to free himself from immigration detention by deciding to leave Australia voluntarily.
This also seems unlikely for a strong-willed player who has shown no signs of backing down in his fight with the government. It would no doubt be seen as a humiliating climbdown for Djokovic.
After this fiasco is over, Djokovic also faces awkward questions in Serbia about why he went to meet a journalist on December 18 last year after testing positive for Covid-19.
He was pictured meeting children at an awards ceremony after taking the PCR test, and also faces an investigation in Spain for a possible breach of that country’s travel rules when flying to his training base in Marbella.
The Australian government has promised not to deport Djokovic until the legal battle is over.
But his detention is garnering worldwide attention and the court case is casting a long shadow over the tournament which is due to get underway in earnest on Monday.
Many will be hoping this affair will be behind them, one way or the other, when the first ball is served.