Novak Djokovic’s father accused Australia of “crucifying” his son as the row over the world tennis number one’s detention in Melbourne over Covid restrictions escalated into a full blown diplomatic conflict between Canberra and Belgrade.
Srdjan Djokovic, who earlier compared his son to Spartacus – the gladiator who led a slave revolt against Rome – accused Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, of “trampling over Serbia”.
“Jesus was crucified on the cross…but he is still alive among us. They are trying to crucify and belittle Novak and throw him to his knees,” he said.
It came after Alexander Vucic, the president of Serbia, accused Mr Morrison of “harassment” and Serbia’s foreign ministry summoned Australia’s ambassador over the decision.
The row reflects growing tension over vaccines and exemptions at the heart of elite sports around the world, with major doubts over upcoming rugby and football tournaments, and the Winter Olympics.
“What’s not fair is this political persecution everyone is taking part in, even the Australian prime minister,” Mr Vucic said of Novak Djokovic’s plight.
“The whole of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately,” he added.
The tennis player’s mother, Dijana, complained that he was a “prisoner” in the Park hotel in Carlton, a notorious immigration hotel where Australian authorities have interned asylum seekers.
“It’s just some small, immigration hotel, if it is a hotel at all. With bugs, it’s all dirty, the food is terrible,” she said.
Mr Djokovic, who has not been vaccinated against Covid-19, was detained when he disembarked at Melbourne airport ahead of this month’s Australian Open on Wednesday night.
The star had been issued with a Covid exemption by the State of Victoria and Tennis Australia, which he insisted allowed him to enter the country.
Australian border force officials said permission to enter Victoria was not the same as permission to cross the international border.
He was detained for eight hours overnight, before being transferred to the Park hotel, where he will stay until an appeal hearing on Monday.
Under Australian law, all inbound travellers over the age of 12 must be fully vaccinated to enter Australia, unless an exemption applies. They must also provide proof of vaccination status before arrival through the Australia Travel Declaration.
Boris Johnson indicates support for Australia
On Thursday, Boris Johnson indicated his support for Australia’s hardline stance on the importance of vaccinations, while declining to comment directly on the Novak Djokovic incident.
“It’s a matter for Australia and their friendly government,” the Prime Minister said when asked about it by a television reporter.
“That’s a matter for them but clearly I share very strongly their view of the Australian authorities that it’s a very good idea to get vaccinated.”
Under the UK Government’s current rules, international sportsmen who have not been jabbed can get an exemption from the rules others who are unjabbed must follow.
They have to quarantine for 10 days and take PCR tests, but can leave self-isolation to train and compete in sports matches.
The crisis has raised questions over the ability of elite athletes to bypass Covid restrictions
The next flashpoint will be this year’s Champions League and the Six Nations tournaments in Europe.
France has ordered all sports competitors to have a vaccine pass to take part in domestic competitions from January 15, but is expected to grant exceptions to allow international competitions to go ahead.
Tennis players are likely to be able to compete at the French Open in May, provided they limit their movements to hotel, shuttle bus and courts. That means Novak Djokovic may be able to play, Le Parisien reported.
Australian prime minister: ‘Rules are rules’
Mr Morrison initially brushed aside criticism of Novak Djokovic’s exemption, describing it on Wednesday as a matter for the Victorian government.
On Thursday he changed course, praising the decision to detain him in what critics described as a cynical attempt to win popularity ahead of Federal elections in spring.
“Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from Covid, we are continuing to be vigilant.”
Mr Djokovic’s visa has been cancelled. Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) January 5, 2022
Mr Morrison’s approval ratings have plummeted after bungling Australia’s vaccine procurement and failings over the handling of high profile sexual assault claims inside parliament.
The issue of sporting exemptions for Novak Djokovic sparked a public outcry in Australia, where many families have been separated for prolonged periods by the country’s strict pandemic border controls.
One of the star’s greatest rivals, clay master Rafael Nadal, issued a statement in which he said: “(It) is normal that the people here in Australia get very frustrated with the (Djokovic) case, because they have been going through a lot of very hard lockdowns and a lot of people were not able to come back home”.
Melbourne has been subject to a total of 256 days of lockdown, one of the longest in the world. It still has some restrictions currently in place but is no longer under lockdown and has an open border to domestic travellers.
Spectators at the Open, which opens on January 17, will have to be vaccinated.
That scandal was greeted with a mixture of disgust and amusement by ordinary Australians, with many accusing both Mr Morrison and Novak Djokovic of hypocrisy.