In an interview room at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, an Australian immigration officer sat down across from the tennis star Novak Djokovic.
The officer started with a warning.
“I am now going to caution you,” the officer said, according to a public transcript both sides have agreed is accurate, “that if you provide false or forged documents or false or misleading information you can be prosecuted under Australian laws.”
Even before his plane touched down in Melbourne last Wednesday night, Djokovic’s application for a visa to play in next week’s Australian Open was under scrutiny, and questions swirled about whether he would be allowed into the country. The answer, at least initially, was no. Australia, which requires all foreign visitors to be vaccinated, but grants exemptions in limited cases, canceled Djokovic’s visa after his airport interview, only to have a judge reinstate it on Monday on procedural grounds.
“This is his greatest victory, greater than all the Grand Slams that he has won,” his mother, Dijana, said at a news conference on Monday in Belgrade, Serbia.
On Wednesday, however, as Australia’s top immigration official considered rejecting Djokovic’s visa again and its prime minister calculated the political cost of the fight, Djokovic issued a statement on his Instagram account attempting to explain why he repeatedly appeared without a mask at public events after he believed he had been exposed to the coronavirus, and for two days after a test confirmed that he was positive.
The statement came days after published reports and Djokovic’s own social media posts raised questions about the validity of his visa paperwork and his actions in the days around Dec. 16, when, by his account, he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Djokovic labeled the reports about his movements “misinformation” even as he confirmed they were accurate.
Even the positive test result, which is at the heart of the medical exemption that Djokovic needed to obtain to play in the Australian Open, has since been cast into doubt by a published report.
On Monday, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that it had scanned the unique computer code attached to Djokovic’s test result — which was included in court filings related to his visa appeal — and found that it initially reported the test was negative for the virus. But just over an hour later, when Der Spiegel journalists and others checked the code again, the linked webpage said Djokovic’s test was positive. That was still the case on Tuesday morning.
The confusion about Djokovic’s test result, though, had only renewed questions about his actions, and false statements about his travel in the period when he tested positive.
If Djokovic indeed received a positive result on Dec. 16, then his actions in the ensuing days — when he should have been isolating — could have endangered the health and safety of dozens of people. On the day of his test and the two that followed, for example, Djokovic’s own social media postings and contemporaneous accounts show him repeatedly appearing at public events without a mask and around children and strangers even after he had recorded a positive test.
What had Djokovic said before now?
To obtain a visa to enter Australia, Djokovic and his lawyers submitted documents that said he had tested positive for the coronavirus on Dec. 16. He cited that positive result when he was interviewed by Australia Border Force officials upon his arrival in Melbourne.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Have you ever had COVID?
INTERVIEWER: So when did you?
DJOKOVIC: I had COVID twice, I had COVID in June 2020 and I had COVID recently in — I was tested positive — PCR — 16th of December 2021.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Sorry what was the date? 16th of December?
DJOKOVIC: 16th of December 2021, I have the documents as well to confirm that if you want I can provide — just as a —
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. I’ll just make a photocopy of those documents —
The filing also includes the timing of the test, which was collected about 1 p.m. Dec. 16, and of a positive result returned seven hours later. In his statement on Wednesday, Djokovic claimed he did not learn of the positive result until after he had attended an event at a tennis center on Dec. 17 and had two rapid antigen tests return negative results.
What about the medical exemption?
The positive test result was used to justify Djokovic’s application for a medical exemption to play in the Australian Open, which requires all tournament participants to be vaccinated but which granted multiple exemptions to the rule.
On Jan. 4, Djokovic announced on his Instagram account that he had received the exemption he needed. Alongside a smiling photo, he said he was headed to Australia.
It was what he had done in the days after his positive test, though, that now threatened to cause him problems.
A public figure, in public.
On Dec. 16, the day Djokovic sought a test for the virus, Djokovic was honored with a stamp by the Serbian postal service and toured its facility. In photos from the event, Djokovic appears with the acting director of Serbia’s postal service, Zoran Dordevic.
Djokovic also took part in an hourlong panel discussion that day at a tennis center that bears his name. The topic? “The role and establishment of authority in the development of character and discipline.”
A day later, Djokovic appeared at an event to honor youth tennis players at the tennis center. None of the dozens of people in a group photo from the ceremony, including Djokovic, whose positive test result was confirmed a night earlier, wore a mask.
The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia
In his statement, Djokovic said he had a negative rapid antigen test before this event and only learned of his positive polymerase chain reaction test afterward.
The next day, though, Dec. 18, Djokovic took part in a photo shoot with the French sports publication L’Equipe. Djokovic said Wednesday he canceled all other obligations beside the interview that day upon learning of his positive test. He also said he was socially distanced and wore a mask except for in the photographs, though he admitted that he regretted keeping the interview as scheduled.
“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 wrote on Instagram.
Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday that if Djokovic attended events after learning he was positive that he would have “clearly violated the rules.”
Djokovic, who confirmed in his airport interview last week that he is unvaccinated, said he would not be making any further comment. On Monday, he had declared himself “pleased and grateful” about the judge’s ruling that returned his visa, and he is clearly planning to stay in Australia, where he is scheduled to begin the defense of his Australian Open title next week. He resumed practicing almost immediately after he was released.
Australia’s immigration minister, meanwhile, continues to “thoroughly consider the matter” of expelling him, and will surely weigh whether Djokovic was truthful in his statements and on his visa paperwork.
As the officer noted in his first airport interview, though, providing false or misleading information could be deemed a crime in Australia. Losing his visa again could result in Djokovic’s being barred from returning to Australia — and to the tennis season’s first major tournament — for at least three years.