Novak Djokovic was pictured at Melbourne Airport on his way out of the country (second from left). / © AFP
Novak Djokovic flew out of Melbourne airport Sunday after losing a court battle to avoid deportation from Australia over his stance on Covid-19 vaccinations.
An AFP reporter aboard the plane confirmed the flight to Dubai had taken off, after capturing images of Djokovic at Melbourne's Tullamarine airport late Sunday.
An "extremely disappointed" Djokovic said he would comply with a unanimous Federal Court ruling that upheld the government's right to rip up his visa over fears he is stoking anti-vaccine sentiment.
"I cannot stay in Australia and participate in the Australian Open," he said on the eve of a tournament that he has dominated for a decade.
"I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country," he said. "I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love."
Earlier, in a few dry words, the chief justice of Australia's Federal Court, James Allsop, Sunday dispensed with the unvaccinated tennis superstar's attempt to reinstate his cancelled visa.
"The orders of the court are that the amended application be dismissed with costs", Allsop said announcing the unanimous decision, on the eve of the first matches at the Australian Open.
The 34-year-old defending champion and first seed had been scheduled to play in the evening of the first day. If he had retained the title he would become the first men's tennis player in history to win 21 Grand Slams.
Instead, the openly anti-Covid vaccine tennis superstar is now set to be kept in detention pending a quick flight out of Australia, while also facing a three year ban from the country. Because of the format of the court, the justices' decision will be extremely difficult to appeal by either side.
The tennis player's fate had lain in the hands of three Australian Federal Court justices. After a half-day of feisty legal back-and-forth about the Serbian ace's anti-vaccine stance and his alleged risk to public order in Australia, the emergency online hearing adjourned while the justices considered the legal arguments.
Djokovic was fighting to be released from immigration detention, for his visa to be reinstated and to be allowed to remain in the country to defend his title at the Australian Open, which starts Monday.
Djokovic's high-powered legal team painted Australia's effort to deport the 34-year-old as "irrational" and "unreasonable", but at times they faced pointed questions from the panel of three justices who decided the case.
His lawyer Nick Wood sought to systematically dismantle the government's central argument that Djokovic's anti-vaccine views are a public threat and could cause "civil unrest" -- including protests and rallies -- unless he is deported.
Despite the Serbian star being unvaccinated, Wood insisted his client had not courted anti-vaxxer support and was not associated with the movement.
The government "doesn't know what Mr Djokovic's current views are", Wood insisted.
Djokovic is the Australian Open's top seed. He will now be unable to retain the title, which would have led him to become the first men's tennis player in history to win 21 Grand Slams.
Djokovic has spent much of the last week in immigration detention, with his visa twice being revoked by the government over his refusal to get a Covid-19 vaccine before arrival -- a requirement for most visitors.
Government lawyer Stephen Lloyd said the fact that Djokovic was not vaccinated two years into the pandemic and had repeatedly ignored safety measures -- including failing to isolate while Covid-19 positive -- was evidence enough of his anti-vaccine views.
"He has now become an icon for the anti-vaccination groups," Lloyd said. "Rightly or wrongly he is perceived to endorse an anti-vaccination view and his presence here is seen to contribute to that."
In a written submission the government also pointed out that Djokovic chose not to give evidence at the hearing.
"He could set the record straight if it needed correcting. He has not -- that has important consequences."
Scott Morrison's government had tried and failed to remove Djokovic once before -- on the grounds he was unvaccinated and that a recent Covid infection was not sufficient for a medical exemption.
A lower circuit court judge ruled that officials at Melbourne airport made procedural errors when cancelling his visa.
For a few days, Djokovic was free to train before a second visa revocation and a return to a notorious Melbourne immigration detention facility.
Many Australians -- who have suffered prolonged lockdowns and border restrictions -- believe the player gamed the system to dodge vaccine entry requirements.
Experts say the case has taken on significance beyond the fate of one man who happens to be good at tennis.
"The case is likely to define how tourists, foreign visitors and even Australian citizens view the nation's immigration policies and 'equality before the law' for years to come," said Sanzhuan Guo, a law lecturer at Flinders University.
The case has also been seized on by culture warriors in the roiling debate over vaccines and how to handle the pandemic.
Australia's immigration minister Alex Hawke has admitted that Djokovic is at "negligible" risk of infecting Australians, but argued his past "disregard" for Covid-19 regulations may pose a risk to public health and encourage people to ignore pandemic rules.
The tennis ace contracted Covid-19 in mid-December and, according to his own account, failed to isolate despite knowing he was positive.
Public records show he attended a stamp unveiling, a youth tennis event, and granted a media interview around the time he got tested and his latest infection was confirmed.
'With or without him'
Djokovic is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 Grand Slam titles each.
Spanish great Nadal took a swipe at his rival on Saturday as players complained the scandal was overshadowing the opening Grand Slam of the year.
"The Australian Open is much more important than any player," Nadal told reporters at Melbourne Park.
"The Australian Open will be a great Australian Open with or without him."