By JOHN PYE and ROD McGUIRK
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – Novak Djokovic knew he had tested positive for COVID-19 when he took part in a newspaper interview and photo shoot in Serbia last month, saying on Wednesday that he had made a “rating error” and should be immediately gone into isolation.
In a statement posted on his social media accounts, the tennis star also accused “human error” from his support team of failing to declare that he had traveled for the two-week period before entering Australia.
Upon arrival, his visa was revoked and later reinstated in an ongoing saga as to whether he should be allowed to enter the country even though he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. The news that Djokovic was granted a waiver from the vaccination rules to enter the country provoked an initial outcry, and the ensuing dispute has since overshadowed the run-up to the Australian Open.
Djokovic acknowledged the omissions as he tried to clarify what he called “continued misinformation” about his movements after he was infected last month – though he did not specify what inaccuracies he was referring to.
The statement was made public while the men’s No. 1 tennis player was at Rod Laver Arena, holding a training session, his third on the tournament’s main court since being released from four nights in immigration jail.
The nine-time and defending Australian Open champion remains in limbo before this year’s first tennis major starts next Monday. The stakes are particularly high as he seeks a men’s record as the 21st Grand Slam singles title.
He won a legal battle on procedural grounds Monday that allowed him to stay in the country, but he still faces the prospect of deportation because his exemption from the COVID-19 vaccination rules has been called into question. This decision is entirely at the discretion of the Australian Minister for Immigration if it is considered to be in the public interest for health and safety reasons.
Expulsion could result in sanctions of up to three years’ ban on entering Australia, a frightening prospect for a player who has won almost half of his 20 Grand Slam singles titles here.
Legal documents describing Djokovic’s positive test sparked speculation about the star player’s participation in events in his home country, Serbia, last month. Additional questions were also raised about errors on his immigration form that could potentially result in the cancellation of his visa.
On the form, Djokovic said he had not traveled in the 14 days before his flight to Australia, despite being seen in Spain and Serbia during that period.
In his statement, Djokovic described recent comments as “hurtful” and said he wanted to address it in the interest of “addressing a broader community concern about my presence in Australia.”
The 34-year-old Serb said he had taken rapid tests that were negative and that he was asymptomatic before receiving his positive result from a PCR test he performed of an “abundance of caution” after participating in a basketball match in Belgrade on December 14.
He received the result by December 17, he said, scrapping all his commitments except for a lengthy interview with the newspaper L’Equipe the following day.
“I felt obligated to move on … but made sure I took social distance and wore a mask, except when my picture was taken,” Djokovic said. “While I went home after the interview to isolate myself for the required period, this was, on reflection, a misjudgment.”
Serbia requires those infected with COVID-19 to isolate themselves for eight days, but they can get out early if they test negative.
The L’Equipe reporter who interviewed the athlete wrote in the newspaper that he and a photographer were also masked during the session – and kept their distance except for a brief moment when Djokovic said goodbye. The reporter said he tested negative for COVID-19 on Monday and did not mention the photographer’s status.
Meanwhile, Djokovic approached the Australian travel statement, saying it had been submitted by his support team, and “my agent sincerely apologizes for the administrative error in ticking the wrong box.”
“This was a human error and certainly not deliberate,” he wrote. “My team has provided further information to the Australian Government to clarify this matter.”
The decision may take a while – but there is time pressure since the draw for deciding brackets for the Australian Open is set to take place on Thursday.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s office issued a statement saying Djokovic’s legal team had submitted additional documents, adding: “This will obviously affect the time frame for a decision.”
It is a question of whether he has a valid exemption from strict rules requiring vaccination to enter Australia since he recently recovered from COVID-19.
His exemption from competing was approved by the State of Victoria and Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer. It apparently allowed him to receive a visa to travel.
But the Australian border force rejected the exemption and canceled his visa on arrival before a federal judge overturned that decision. Lawyers for the government have said that an infection was only the basis for an exception in cases where coronavirus caused serious illness – although it is not clear why he was issued a visa, if that is the case.
The initial decision to let him compete triggered complaints that Djokovic was being given special treatment – and the subsequent cancellation of his visa raised claims that he was targeted when the issue became political. The saga unfolds amid growing concern in Australia over rising COVID-19 cases – and the government’s strategy to curb them.
Australian lawyer Greg Barns, who has experience with visa cases, told the Associated Press that the immigration minister has “personal power” to cancel the visa without having to give written notice or a reasonable time for Djokovic to respond.
If Djokovic’s visa is revoked, his lawyers could go back to court to request a ban that would prevent him from being forced to leave the country.
If the government instead decides to give notice first, Barns said it could give Djokovic up to nine days to respond.
“It could be a way to give Djokovic a chance in the tournament and then kick him out at the end of it,” Barns said.
Sydney-based immigration lawyer Simon Jeans said there are “a lot of fudges” in the law and the immigration department would take the time to make sure any visa cancellation was “app safe.”
This story has been updated to correct quoted portions of Djokovic’s statement. It continued to say misinformation, not ongoing misinformation; obligated, not obligated; my team, not the team.
McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia. Associated Press authors Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed.
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