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Djokovic to face fellow Serb in Australian Open as visa decision looms

Inclusion of defending champ in draw highlights debate over rights of unvaccinated

The draw for the Australian Open was delayed but eventually included the world's top player, Novak Djokovic, who is unvaccinated against COVID-19 and faces deportation.   © Reuters

MELBOURNE (Reuters) -- Tennis world No.1 Novak Djokovic was included in the Australian Open draw as top seed on Thursday though uncertainty hung over his participation with the government considering whether to revoke his visa for a second time.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke could exercise discretionary power to cancel the visa over concern about the Serbian's medical exemption from Australia's COVID-19 inoculation rules.

The unvaccinated defending champion, who practiced at the Rod Laver Arena on Thursday, drew unseeded fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic for his opening match, probably on Monday or Tuesday.

The saga has intensified global debate over rights of choice for vaccines and become a tricky issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he campaigns for re-election.

Australia is due to hold an election by May, and while Morrison's government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security, it has not escaped criticism over the botched handling of Djokovic's visa.

Djokovic, 34, fueled widespread anger in Australia when he announced he was heading to Melbourne with a medical exemption from requirements for visitors to be inoculated against COVID-19.

On arrival, Australian Border Force decided his exemption was invalid and put him in an immigration detention hotel alongside asylum-seekers at for several days.

A court on Monday allowed him to stay on grounds that officials had been "unreasonable" during the seven-hour interview process in the middle of the night.

The government must now decide whether to let Djokovic remain and bid for a record men's 21st major title.

Australia has endured some of the world's longest lockdowns, has a 90% vaccination rate among adults, and has seen a runaway Omicron outbreak bring nearly a million cases in the last two weeks

Djokovic's cause was not helped by a wrong entry declaration, where a box was ticked stating he had not travelled abroad in the two weeks before leaving for Australia.

In fact, he had gone to Spain from Serbia.

Djokovic attributed the error to his agent and acknowledged he also should not have done an interview and photoshoot for a French newspaper on Dec. 18 while infected with COVID-19.

"After hearing about what Djokovic said about how he made mistakes on his form and those little slips, I reckon he'll kick him out," Melbourne resident Tyler Agnew said of the minister's pending decision.

"No one can stuff that badly on little things like that, that's just pretty basic stuff. I reckon he should and will boot him."

Anti-vaxxers, however, have hailed him as a hero while Djokovic's family and the Serbian government have portrayed him as a victim of persecution.

Though no stranger to past controversy, the uproar was getting to Djokovic, Australian former tennis player Todd Woodbridge said after meeting him on on Thursday.

"He is still very aware he may not get to the starting blocks for round one," Woodbridge, who is now a commentator, told a tournament television program. "He is very, very visible ... it's taking a toll on him."

An online poll by the News Corp media group found that 83% favored the government trying to deport Djokovic.

"I would just say though, you know, just get vaccinated. That is the key," said Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state where Melbourne is the capital.

"That's what I've said to every single Victorian, that's what I've done, that's what my kids have done, that's what families, 93% of our community has done that, and I'm very proud of them for doing it, I'm very grateful."

There may also be resentment in the dressing room, where all but three of the top 100 men are inoculated.

"Sometimes your personal beliefs have to be trumped by what's good for the greater good, for those around you, for your peers," tennis great Martina Navratilova told Australian TV, urging Djokovic to "suck it up" and go home.

"Get vaccinated or just don't go play."

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