• REUTERS

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World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was denied entry into Australia on Thursday after initially being granted a medical exemption from the country's COVID-19 vaccination requirements so he could play in the Australian Open.

The tennis star, who was left stranded at Melbourne's Tullamarine airport overnight amid a brewing political maelstrom, was issued a letter by the Australian government saying his visa had been denied.

Australia's border force later confirmed Djokovic's visa had been revoked.

The saga, fueled by domestic political finger pointing about the country's handling of a record surge in new COVID-19 infections, created an international incident with the Serbian president claiming Djokovic was being harassed.

"There are no special cases, rules are rules," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said during a televised news conference.

"We will continue to make the right decisions when it comes to securing Australian borders in relation to this pandemic," Morrison said. "Our government has strong form when it comes to securing our borders."

Djokovic, who has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status, while publicly criticizing mandatory vaccines, kicked off the furor when he announced on Instagram that he had received a medical exemption to pursue his record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 17.

The announcement prompted a swift outcry in Australia, particularly in Melbourne, the tournament's host city, which has endured the world's longest cumulative COVID-19 lockdown.

In a dramatic series of events overnight in Melbourne, Djokovic touched down at Tullamarine airport on Wednesday at about 11:30 p.m. local time after a 14-hour flight from Dubai, but was ushered into an isolation room under police guard when Australian officials said his visa did not allow for medical exemptions.

The source told Reuters the visa and paperwork Djokovic used to gain entry into the country was the same as three other players who had already arrived.

"I've just finished my telephone conversation with Novak Djokovic," Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic posted on Instagram.

"I told our Novak that 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.

"In line with all norms of international law, Serbia will fight for Novak, truth and justice. Novak is strong, as we all know."

Vucic summoned the Australian ambassador in Belgrade and demanded that they immediately release Djokovic to play, Serbian media reported.

Morrison said he was aware that "representations have been made" by the Serbian embassy in Canberra and denied the claims of harassment.

"Australia has sovereign borders and clear rules that are non-discriminatory," Morrison said.

With just 11 days to go until the tournament, a legal challenge by Djokovic could see the fight go all the way to the high court.

At the heart of Djokovic's case is that the 408 temporary activity visa he sought use to enter Australia treats a person arriving with a valid medical exemption equally to one who is vaccinated, the source said.

Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley said the panel consisted of doctors from the fields of immunology, infectious disease and general practice and all exemptions met conditions set out by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).

The Australian government had previously pledged to honor the rules of the exemption process. However, when Djokovic arrived on an Emirates flight on Wednesday, he was detained by border officials. Australian media reported the Border Force claimed he had applied for the wrong visa for a medical exemption.

The Australian task force that sets the exemption parameters lists the risk of serious cardiac illness from inoculation and a COVID-19 infection within the past six months as qualifiers. However, Morrison said on Thursday that Tennis Australia had been advised several months ago that a recent infection did not meet the criteria for exemption.

Tennis Australia and government officials said Djokovic received no preferential treatment, adding he was among "a handful" of the 26 people who applied who were approved in an anonymous and independent process.

The Serbian has won nine titles at Melbourne Park — including the last three — but is unlikely to receive a warm welcome due to his anti-vaccination stance in an area with a 93% vaccination rate for people aged 12 and over.

Australian tennis great Rod Laver, whose name is on center court at Melbourne Park, warned Djokovic might face hostility from locals.

"I think it might get ugly," Laver said. "I'd think the Victorian people would be thinking 'Yes I'd love to see him play and compete, but at the same time there's a right way and a wrong way.'

"Yes, you're a great player and you've performed and won so many tournaments, so it can't be physical. So what is the problem?"

Melbourne local Christine Wharton said it was a "disgrace."

"We've all done the right thing, we've all gone out and got our jabs and our boosters, and we have someone that's come from overseas and all of a sudden he's been exempt and can play, and I think it's an absolute disgrace and I won't be watching it."

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