‘We await the champion’: how Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open trip went from elation to detention

Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open journey started in comfort, and excitement.

A photo showed the tennis star with a huge grin on his face, bags packed, as he boarded his Emirates flight from Dubai.

“Let’s go 2022!” he posted to Instagram.

But it ended with him trapped in an immigration hotel infamous for detaining refugees, caught in the middle of a diplomatic stoush between Serbia and Australia and a fight over his deportation playing out in the federal court.

The news that the world No 1, who refuses to reveal his vaccine status, was en route to Australia enraged many.

Melbourne was one of the most locked down cities in the world, and the Covid vaccine is mandated in the majority of its workplaces.

Many residents questioned why Tennis Australia and the Victorian government were allowing an unvaccinated sports star to play.

But after touching down in Melbourne about 11.30pm local time, Djokovic never made it through arrivals.

Australian Border Force officials stopped him after it emerged that his team had applied for a visa that does not allow medical exemptions.

In a statement, the ABF confirmed Djokovic did not meet the entry requirements and his visa was cancelled.

“Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa on entry or who have had their visa cancelled will be detained and removed from Australia,” the statement said.

As Djokovic waited alone in an airport room, the arrivals lounge filled up with media and a small number of fans. One stood in the middle of the arrival gate, waving a Serbian flag.

Slobodan Bendjo and Krstomir Dusanovic had been waiting at Melbourne airport since midnight, ready to welcome the tennis star.

Armed with an accordion and a Serbian flag, the pair were walking around the airport playing music.

“We are here to await the champion,” Dusanovic said.

They were not deterred by the fact the tennis star was being told to leave Australia, they said.

“We’ve still here to welcome him,” Bendjo said. “He’s just here somewhere behind these walls – he’s not far away from us.

“We always, when he comes here, welcome him with music. It’s a traditional thing you do. We think it’s important we continue with the tradition.”

A young fan, Andrew Mitrovic wandered in with his mum. He held a makeshift sign that said “free Nole”.

They had brought tickets to see Djokovic play and were devastated he hadn’t been allowed in.

About 10am, he was moved to the Park hotel in Carlton, an infamous immigration detention hotel.

It houses 36 refugees – some of whom have been detained for nine years.

The windows in the hotel can’t be opened – they have been sealed shut and there was recently a Covid outbreak among the detainees.

An unusual crew of Djokovic supporters, refugee advocates and anti-vaxxers gathered outside the hotel.

Husband and wife Ziggy and Billy Misovic came down to show their support for the tennis star.

Waving a flag from Djokovic’s home town, Belgrade, they yelled “free Novak”.

“We came to support the number one,” Billy said. “It’s ridiculous, he’s got an exemption, why not let him in?”

Asked about his vaccination status, Ziggy said: “It’s a private matter. Do I ask if you have Aids? It’s private.”

Billy said they understood the frustration of Victorians but that Djokovic had been “humiliated”.

“My father passed away two years ago. He was in Serbia. The borders were closed, I understand [the frustration],” she said.

Refugee Advocate Jenny Leah said she came every day to show her support and had never seen this many members of the media.

“There are dozens of media here today, we are here every day – we get a lot of support from passing motorists, tram drivers, but never any media,” she said.

“To us, it says something about the priorities of the media, and public.”

The refugees are not allowed on the roof for fresh air and have recently reported finding maggots and mould in their food.

Some of them have recently been released on bridging visas but the future of those left inside is unknown.

Leah said Djokovic would receive very different treatment: “He’ll get to leave.”

As the afternoon wore on, a slow stream of Djokovic’s supporters from Australia’s Serbian community came out to show their solidarity. They played Serbian music, danced and one zoomed around on a scooter yelling.

Sandra Milisic, draped in a Serbian flag, said Djokovic deserved “respect”.

“If this was an issue to begin with, they should have knocked him back beforehand. He deserves the respect, considering he has given support to Australia during the bushfires,” she said.

During a lull in festivities from Djokovic supporters, refugee advocates climbed on top of the roof and, with huge banners, chanted “free the refugees”.

A refugee in the window above them holds up nine fingers, for the number of years he has been detained.

One Djokovic supporter cut through the crowd to say: “I feel so ignorant. I came here for him, and find out they’ve been locked up for nine years. It’s so wrong.”

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