Australia PM Says 'No One is Above' Rules Amid Novak Djokovic's Detainment Over COVID Jab

As the detention of Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 tennis player in the world, continues, Australia's Prime Minister is defending the actions of the country's Border Force.

Djokovic, who has denied confirming whether or not he has received the COVID-19 vaccine, was detained by immigration authorities on Thursday. The Serbian tennis player was originally allowed to attend the Australian Open through an exemption given by the Victoria state government and Tennis Australia. However, that exemption and his visa were canceled upon his arrival to the country on Wednesday.

"No one is above these rules," said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference on Thursday. "Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID. We are continuing to be vigilant."

Despite Morrison's words, Serbians are not taking kindly to the tennis player's treatment. Djokovic is largely considered to be a national hero in the country, with his family being among the most vocal of dissidents.

"You, famous Prime Minister of the faraway naturally beautiful country, are behaving according to your own principles, which have nothing to do with us and our principles," said Djokovic's father Srdan. "We are humans, and you, sir, are not."

The city of Melbourne, where the Australian Open is held, is experiencing a major surge in COVID-19 cases. On Friday, the city reported 21,728 new infections and six deaths attributed to the virus. Hospitalizations have also increased in the city that has spent a total of 256 days under lockdown throughout 2020 and 2021.

Djokovic Day 11
Novak Djokovic of Serbia, the No. 1 tennis player in the world, is currently detained in Australia after his COVID-19 vaccine exemption and visa were denied. Pictured, Djokovic celebrates after winning set point during his men's singles semifinal match against Roger Federer of Switzerland on day 11 of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 30, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Matt King/Getty Images

Many in Australia have cheered the decision to block Djokovic's arrival.

Columnist Peter FitzSimons wondered how it could be any other way.

"The first grand slam of the year is, after all, held in one of the most locked-down cities on the planet, where the people have made extraordinary sacrifices to keep the population as healthy as possible," he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. "And he was meant to just waltz on in, be the exception to the rule, just because he could hit a ball well?"

On social media, many shared that sentiment, with one poster complaining that during the lockdowns he could not fly to Australia from Britain to attend family funerals, and so the tennis star should not be allowed in.

But some say the athlete is being made a scapegoat.

"The guy played by the rules, he got his visa, he arrives, he's a nine-time champion and whether people like it or not he's entitled to fair play," Former Australian Open tournament director and Davis Cup player Paul McNamee told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "There's no doubt there's some disconnect between the state and the federal government."

"I hate to think politics are involved, but it feels that way," he added.

In recent months, Morrison's government has pivoted to a living-with-the-virus approach that includes more open borders and a lighter touch on domestic restrictions. He implemented the changes just as the highly contagious omicron variant started to take hold.

Morrison, who is seeking re-election in March, has faced heavy criticism for the new strategy. But he points to Australia's low death rate and strong economy — both among the best in the world — as evidence he can steer the country through the crisis.

"We have no choice but to ride the wave (of Omicron cases)," he said. "What's the alternative? What we must do is press on."

Morrison has also been criticized for failing to secure enough rapid antigen tests to take pressure off PCR testing sites where waiting times in some states have exceeded five hours. He has refused to make rapid tests widely available and free.

Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, has been hardest hit by the current Omicron surge, which emerged after state Premier Dominic Perrottet relaxed mask mandates and other rules. Other states have been slower to relax virus-related restrictions, creating tension between Australia's states and the federal government.

Djokovic has been left to wait out the court process at a Melbourne hotel that also houses refugees and asylum-seekers who have been transferred from Australia's off-shore detention centers. In October, a COVID-19 outbreak at the hotel infected about half of the 46 asylum-seekers then being held there.

Djokovic's brother Djordje said the tennis star had been taken "to a dirty room without any belongings."

"He was treated like a criminal, while he is a healthy and decent man and a sportsman who has not endangered anyone's life and has not committed any federal or legal offense," Djordje added.

The process that led to the original decision to grant Djokovic an exemption now is under scrutiny. Tennis Australia insists the exemption was granted by an independent panel of medical experts, unaware of whose applications they were assessing.

The cases of two other Australian Open players who also received health-based vaccine exemptions are currently being closely examined.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Friday that Renata Voracova, a 38-year-old doubles player from the Czech Republic, also had her visa canceled and was taken to the same hotel where Djokovic is staying. Tennis Australia and Australia's Home Affairs department did not immediately respond to calls for confirmation.

It remained unclear who the third player was.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Djokovic Detention
Australian Open defending champion, Serbia's Novak Djokovic waits at an Australian Border Force desk on his arrival at Melbourne Airport, Wednesday, January 5, 2022. Locked in a dispute over his COVID-19 vaccination status, Djokovic was confined to the immigration detention hotel in Australia on Thursday, January 6, 2022 as the No. 1 men's tennis player in the world awaited a court ruling on whether he can compete in the Australian Open later this month. AP Photo