How the Novak Djokovic row brought the world’s attention to a drab refugee hotel | Novak Djokovic

If not for the freshly plastered graffiti over its walls informing passers-by of the dozens of detained refugees inside, the Park hotel looks like it could be any regular building in Melbourne. It exists in a particularly pleasant part of the world, just north of Melbourne’s central business district, right in the shadow of the city’s university and surrounded by a parade of enticing Asian restaurants. The building, meanwhile, is coloured in nondescript shades of cream and grey. In regular times, people rarely look twice.

Since Novak Djokovic arrived in Melbourne and was promptly ordered by the Australian Border Force to leave the country before being whisked away to the detention hotel as his lawyers appealed the cancellation of his visa, the Park hotel has been at the epicentre of one of the most absurd sporting stories in recent memory. As Djokovic’s fans gathered, so too did those campaigning for the freedom of the refugees, some of whom have been there for years.

On Monday, one way or another, those sights will be no more. Djokovic’s legal battle against his deportation from Australia began on Thursday as his lawyers secured an interim injunction for him to remain in the country until after his hearing, which the government did not oppose. That hearing begins on Monday at 10am.

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Despite the spectacle, the facts are simple. Upon Djokovic’s arrival in Melbourne on Wednesday night, the Australian Border Force found that he was unable to prove that he met Australia’s entry requirements, which requires arrivals to be vaccinated. As an unvaccinated traveller, Djokovic had been granted a medical exemption through a process directed by Tennis Australia and the state of Victoria in order to compete in the Australian Open, but the federal government, and no other entity, controls the country’s borders.

Thus, Djokovic’s legal team will have to prove that the border force’s decision to cancel his visa and move to deport him was unlawful. On Saturday, court documents revealed that Djokovic sought his medical exemption after, his lawyers say, he was infected with Covid-19 on 16 December. His lawyers also cite his travel declaration and exemption as indication that he was entitled to enter Victoria.

Of the possible outcomes, Djokovic could win the case, allowing him to leave the hotel and compete, or he could lose it and be forced to depart the country. The case could rumble on, with his presence and freedom in Melbourne at the discretion of the judge.

The hearing is set to be a spectacle itself: it will be held on Microsoft Teams and be open to the public. The federal court’s website has published the link to Monday’s hearing, along with the warning in bold letters: “It is imperative that you keep your camera and audio off as this can affect the progress of the hearing.”

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In the wake of so much public emotion, outrage and attention, that may be the entire goal for some.

Djokovic walks off after being defaulted for inadvertently striking a lineswoman with a ball at the 2020 US Open in September.
Djokovic walks off after being defaulted for inadvertently striking a lineswoman with a ball at the 2020 US Open in September. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

From a sporting perspective, the stakes are clear. Djokovic has already fumbled one major championship recently when he was defaulted from the fourth round of the 2020 US Open after accidentally hitting a lineswoman with a ball. He does not need to do so again.

Even though Djokovic remains the dominant player in men’s tennis, having stood one match from winning the grand slam last year, and will have other opportunities, every major tournament counts when you are 34 years old. He had arrived in Melbourne seeking a record-breaking 21st major singles title.

Should he lose the case, there are further concerns. If the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa is upheld, he could be banned from re-entering the country for three years. It remains to be seen whether he would even want to return to Australia after how things have panned out.

His cause has found support in unlikely corners. “It’s just too much at this point,” said Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios on Saturday. “Honestly, I hope it all gets sorted as soon as possible. For the sport we need him here, it’s that simple. He’s one of the most influential sports people probably of all time.”

On Saturday morning, after some rowdy days and nights, the hotel’s surroundings were far quieter. A couple of Serbian fans of Djokovic, a father and son, quietly scanned the building across the road. Meanwhile, a dozen tenacious human rights protesters continued to brandish their signs demanding the immediate release of the refugees. Policemen and policewomen stood guard, while photographers congregated around windows, their cameras clicking every time a curtain moved.

Occasionally, members of the public would pass by and stop to take a look. Karen and Patrick were on their way to the neighbourhood of Brunswick, minding their business on a route they had taken countless times in their lives, when they stumbled across the scene. “We walked past this building so many times not knowing that they’ve been there for months,” said Karen.

When Djokovic departs , so too will the cameras that had only briefly focused on the plight of the refugees.

One activist, Asher, stood to the southern side of the building with a bright pink sign that read: “Aussie Open? More like Aussie endlessly abusing refugees,” a real tennis racket attached to each corner of the sign.

His frustration was clear: “I’m kind of disgusted that it’s taken Djokovic being put in here for attention to come to these men,” Asher said. “Djokovic will be here for a few days and he’s not in the same situation at all. The media should be caring about these men – regardless of Djokovic.”

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