Novak Djokovic thanks fans, finds an unlikely ally in Nick Kyrgios

People hold placards at a government detention centre where Novak Djokovic is reported to be staying in Melbourne. (AFP)
People hold placards at a government detention centre where Novak Djokovic is reported to be staying in Melbourne. (AFP)

Djokovic received calls from his native Serbia, including from his parents and the president, who hoped to boost his spirits on the holiday

By AP/Reuters

Published: Fri 7 Jan 2022, 8:38 PM

Last updated: Fri 7 Jan 2022, 8:39 PM

The top men’s tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, spent Orthodox Christmas in an immigration detention hotel in Australia on Friday as he sought to fend off deportation over the country’s Covid-19 rules and compete in the Australian Open.

Djokovic received calls from his native Serbia, including from his parents and the president, who hoped to boost his spirits on the holiday.

On Instagram, he posted: “Thank you to the people around the world for your continuous support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated.”

The 34-year-old athlete and vaccine skeptic was barred from entering the country late Wednesday when federal border authorities at the Melbourne airport rejected his medical exemption to Australia’s strict Covid-19 vaccination requirements.

He has been confined to the detention hotel in Melbourne pending a court hearing on Monday, a week before the start of the tournament, where he is seeking to win his record-breaking 21st Grand Slam singles title.

During the day, Djokovic’s supporters, waving banners, gathered outside the Park Hotel, used to house refugees and asylum-seekers.

A priest from the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Melbourne asked to visit the nine-time Australian Open champion to celebrate Orthodox Christmas but was turned down by immigration officials because the hotel is under lockdown.

Djokovic flew to Australia after obtaining a medical exemption backed by the country’s tennis federation and approved by the Victoria state government. The grounds for the exemption have not been disclosed. But the Australian government pronounced it invalid when he arrived.

The dispute has become a touchy topic in a city where residents spent 256 days in 2020-21 under severe restrictions on their movement. Djokovic’s exemption stirred allegations the star athlete got special treatment.

While some players have sympathised with his situation, others have said getting vaccinated would have prevented any drama.

But amid the latest turn in the dispute, even some who have been critical of Djokovic in the past are now seemingly in his corner.

On Friday, the Serb received support from one of his fiercest critics with Nick Kyrgios criticising the way the world number one has been treated in Australia and saying authorities must do better for “one of our great champions”.

“Look, I definitely believe in taking action, I got vaccinated because of others and for my mum’s health, but how we are handling Novak’s situation is bad, really bad,” Nick Kyrgios, an Australian player and outspoken critic of some of Djokovic’s opinions on vaccinations, posted on Twitter. “This is one of our great champions but at the end of the day, he is human. Do better.”

Kyrgios, who criticised Djokovic after the Serb sought to improve quarantine conditions for players ahead of last year’s Australian Open, said the situation had been handled poorly.

American player John Isner said Djokovic had followed all rules and did not deserve to be treated this way.

“What Novak is going through right now is not right,” Isner said on Twitter. “There’s no justification for the treatment he’s receiving ... This is such a shame.”

Former US Open champion Marin Cilic hoped the situation would be quickly resolved and that the whole episode was not good for the sport.

“Definitely it’s not a great picture for tennis,” Cilic told reporters in Adelaide on Friday.

The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), the breakaway players’ body launched by Djokovic in 2020, said in a statement that they were in close contact with him.

“Djokovic has verified his well-being to us,” the PTPA said in a statement. “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.”

Djokovic has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status while publicly criticising mandatory vaccines.

German tennis great Boris Becker, who coached Djokovic to six majors, urged him to get vaccinated.

“As his former coach I am so close to Novak Djokovic that I would almost regard him as family — but like in all families you sometimes have disagreements,” Becker wrote in a Daily Mail column.

“And on this occasion I think he is making a big mistake in not getting vaccinated. It is one that threatens what remains of his career and his chance to cement himself as the greatest player of all time.”

Becker was, however, unsure if Djokovic would change his mind.

“The same incredible determination which I saw win so many close matches can be a vulnerability with his stubbornness,” Becker added. “Will Novak take that step? I am not sure that he will.

“He is incredibly strong-willed, with very firm beliefs. If he does not, then in 10 years he will look back on it and realise he made a mistake.”

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