By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic said on Wednesday an incorrect answer was made on his Australian entry documents, breaching the country’s strict laws on reporting recent travel, as the government said it was still considering whether to deport the player.
Djokovic was held in immigration detention in Melbourne for several days after his visa was cancelled by border force officials, who questioned his medical exemption for a requirement to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
He was released on Monday after a judge quashed that decision, saying the cancellation of the visa was “unreasonable” because the player was not given time to consult with lawyers and tennis officials when he arrived in the country.
Djokovic said his travel declaration was filled in by his support team, who made an “administrative mistake” when they ticked the “no” box in response to whether he had travelled elsewhere in the 14 days before arriving in Australia.
“This was human error and certainly not deliberate,” Djokovic said. “We are living in challenging times in a global pandemic and sometimes this mistakes can occur.”
The statement came as Australia’s Immigration Minister Alex Hawke considered whether to cancel the world no.1 tennis player’s visa ahead of the Australian Open, which starts on Jan. 17.
Giving false or misleading information in the form is an offence, carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months in prison, and a fine of up to A$6,600 ($4,730) and can lead to cancellation of the offender’s visa.
Djokovic, who is seeking to win a record 21st tennis major at the Open, said his lawyers had provided additional information to the Australian government on Wednesday to clarify the matter.
A spokesman for Hawke, who has the discretionary power to again cancel Djokovic’s visa, said the minister was still considering taking action, a process that would be extended to assess the new information.
Australia has a policy barring non-citizens or non-residents from entry unless they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but offers a medical exemption. Djokovic’s visa was cancelled on the grounds he has not been vaccinated and his medical exemption was not satisfactory.
Monday’s court ruling did not address whether that exemption – based on Djokovic contracting COVID-19 last month – was valid.
Djokovic’s case provoked a row between Canberra and Belgrade and fuelled heated debate over mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies.
Questions arose about Djokovic’s movements before coming to Australia when social media posts appeared to show him in Belgrade less than two weeks before he headed to Spain and then on to Australia.
Accounts from two eyewitnesses and another individual, obtained by Reuters on Tuesday corroborated those social media posts.
Djokovic, who held another practice session at Melbourne Park on Wednesday, did not detail his travel in his statement on Wednesday acknowledging the mistake.
In its online explanation for the 14-day travel reporting requirement, the government said the information helps determine any necessary quarantine arrangements and allows health officials to contact any arrival if a fellow traveller tests positive for COVID-19.
The player also apologised in his statement for attending a L’Equipe interview and photoshoot on Dec. 18, the day after he said he learned he had tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
“While I went home after the interview to isolate for the required period, on reflection, this was an error of judgement and I accept that I should have rescheduled this commitment,” he said.
Djokovic denied media reports he also knew he had contracted the virus when he attended a tennis event in Belgrade to present awards to children a day earlier.
“I was asymptomatic and felt good, and I had not received the notification of a positive PCR result until after that event,” he said, adding that a rapid antigen test taken before the event came back negative.
Social media posts showed Djokovic posing with the children, without wearing a mask.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul, Byron Kaye and John Mair; Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)