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Tennis top-ranked Djokovic spends religious day in detention

Protestors gather outside an immigration detention hotel where Serbia's Novak Djokovic is believed to stay, in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

(AP) -- Regardless of who made an error on the visa or the vaccination waiver or whatever, the reality Friday for tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic was spending one of his important religious holidays in an Australian detention hotel working on his challenge against deportation.

    Djokovic has been receiving calls from Serbia, including from his parents and the president, hoping to boost his spirits. A priest from the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Melbourne sought permission from immigration authorities to visit the nine-time Australian Open champion to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas.

    "Our Christmas is rich in many customs and it is so important that a priest visits him," the church's dean, Milorad Locard, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "The whole thing around this event is appalling. That he has to spend Christmas in detention ... it is unthinkable."

    Djokovic's supporters gathered outside the Park Hotel, used to house refugees and asylum seekers near downtown Melbourne, waving flags and banners.

    They mixed with human rights advocates who were there more to highlight the plight of other longer-term people in detention, many who have long complained about their living conditions and exposure to the coronavirus in the pandemic.

    A day after both the prime minister and the home affairs minister said it was the responsibility of the individual to have their visa documents in order, it seemed to dawn on people locally that whatever mistakes happened in the process, one of the highest-profile athletes in the world was in detention.

    The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported later Friday that Renata Voracova, a 38-year-old doubles player from the Czech Republic, had her visa canceled and was taken to the same hotel where Djokovic is staying. Tennis Australia and Australia's Home Affairs department did not immediately respond to calls for confirmation.

    Djokovic flew to Australia confident he had everything he needed to compete, given he had been approved by Victoria state government for a medical exemption.

    That same evidence didn't comply with the Australian government's regulations.

    So, instead of preparing to defend his Australian Open title, and bid to win a men's-record 21st major title, he's preparing to go to the Federal Circuit Court on Monday to challenge his visa cancellation and deportation.

    Attention is moving away from Djokovic's vaccination status -- a touchy topic in a city where people spent so long in lockdown and were subject to harsh travel restrictions -- and onto questions about how the nine-time Australian Open champion could have wound up in this situation.

    Even some who have been critical of Djokovic in the past are now in his corner.

    "Look, I definitely believe in taking action, I got vaccinated because of others and for my mums 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."

    Jelena Djokovic posted on social media to thank her husband's supporters.

    "Thank you dear people, all around the world for using your voice to send love to my husband," she posted on Twitter. "I am taking a deep breath to calm down and find gratitude (and understanding) in this moment for all that is happening."

    Critics of the medical exemptions have said if there were no loopholes, then nobody would be in Djokovic's position right now. And while players have sympathized with Djokovic's situation, some have said getting vaccinated would have prevented the problems.

    Djokovic has been a vaccine skeptic, and has declined to acknowledge if he's had shots for COVID-19, but there can't be any doubt he traveled to Australia believing his paperwork was all in order.

    The medical-exemption applications from players, their teams and tennis officials were vetted by two independent panels of medical experts at the state level. Djokovic had an approved exemption allowing him into the tournament.

    But when he landed at the airport, the Australian government's Border Force canceled Djokovic's visa, saying he "failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements."

    Australia's strict COVID-19 laws dictate that incoming travelers must have had two shots of an approved vaccine, or must have an exemption with a genuine medical reason, such as an acute condition, to avoid quarantine.

    Tennis Australia said Djokovic's request for an exemption "was granted following a rigorous review process." Neither Tennis Australia nor Djokovic revealed the reason he sought an exemption.

    The Australian Border Force rejected his exemption as invalid, canceled his visa and then moved him to the immigration hotel. His lawyers worked urgently to ensure he could stay until Monday, when the a federal judge will hear his challenge, a week before the Australian Open is set to start.

    After the news broke of the visa cancellation, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley defended the "completely legitimate application and process" and insisted there was no special treatment for Djokovic.

    He said only 26 people connected with the tournament applied for a medical exemption -- to avoid the rule that all players, staff, officials and fans needed to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to enter Melbourne Park -- and only a "handful" were granted. None, except Djokovic, who posted it himself on social media, were publicly identified. However, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews on Friday said two others were under investigation.

    Tiley hasn't commented officially since then.

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