Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic departs from the Park Hotel government detention facility before attending a court hearing at his lawyers office in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday. Photo by James Ross/EPA-EFE
Jan. 15 (UPI) -- Lawyers for Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic appeared virtually in an Australian federal court Sunday in an 11th-hour bid to save his chances to compete in the Australian Open after refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Djokovic has been held at the Park Hotel government detention facility in Melbourne after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke canceled his visa for the second time Friday. The hearing comes just one day before the athlete is expected to compete against Miomir Kecmanovic, a fellow Serbian, in a first-round match.
The tennis star had sought a medical exemption to the country's requirement that all international visitors be vaccinated in order to participate in the championship event, kicking off an internationally followed controversy closely followed by those who both support and oppose vaccines.
The televised hearing Sunday was requested by Djokovic's lawyers because of the looming competition. It was held before a three-judge panel, consisting of Chief Justice James Allsop, Justice David O'Callaghan and Justice Anthony Besanko.
Because it was held before the three-judge panel, any decision will be final and cannot be appealed.
During the hearing, Djokovic's lawyer Nick Wood pointed to news reports referring to comments the athlete has previously made about vaccines, largely to claim the minister had not considered the consequences for preventing Djokovic from competing by canceling his visa.
"This is not like a visa application case where the visa applicant needed to satisfy the minister," Wood said.
Documents filed by Djokovic's lawyers ahead of the hearing indicated that the tennis star's legal team would push back on potential public health risks of admitting him to Australia, and the "evidence" which Hawke had available to him at the time he made the decision.
Djokovic had said he was "opposed to vaccination" in April 2020 before vaccines were widely available worldwide, the BBC reported. Djokovic also said he "wouldn't want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine."
During the hearing, Wood argued at length -- while often repeating himself -- that Hawke's decision to cancel Djokovic's visa for a second time and expel him from the country itself "might act to generate anti-vaccination sentiment."
"The minister is grasping at straws. There was no consideration for that conclusion whatsoever," Wood said.
Hawke's lawyer, Stephen Lloyd, said in legal documents ahead of the hearing that the news reports about the tennis star's previous comments show that Djokovic's presence in Australia may foster sentiment against COVID-19 vaccination -- posing a "risk to the health of the Australian community."
"That conclusion was not based on a concern about Mr. Djokovic infecting others," the document reads.
Rather, Hawke reasoned that Djokovic was unvaccinated and his conduct and position against vaccination against COVID-19 "may encourage others to emulate him by reason of his high profile and status."
"There are some media reports that some groups opposed to vaccination have supported Mr. Djokovic's presence in Australia, by reference to his unvaccinated status," Hawke had said, according to the documents.
Hawke had also reasoned that if Australians were encouraged to resist the vaccine and associated mandates, it would "present a problem for the health of individuals and the operation of Australia's hospital system," according to the documents filed by his lawyer.
After Wood's arguments that the only evidence Hawke had available to him were news reports such as the BBC article, justices on the court made the point that "evidence" includes the "common sense" understanding of credible information before a decision-maker such as Hawke.
Wood then shifted his argument to assert that Hawke could not have known his client's perceptions of the COVID-19 vaccine because the BBC report itself noted that Djokovic said he was "no expert" and would keep an "open mind" but wanted to have "an option to choose what's best for my body."