Beleaguered Novak Djokovic deserves his day on court, not in court, according to former Australian Open chief Paul McNamee.
The world No.1 Djokovic faces another three days in an immigration detention hotel in Melbourne amid one of the great modern sports controversies, waiting for a legal ruling over whether he can defend the Australian crown he’s won nine times.
Yet far beyond the quiet of his hotel, the outcry in his native Serbia over the treatment of Djokovic was growing with his family saying he had been “held captive” in Australia and insisting the treatment of one of sport’s greatest performers was a disgrace.
And nearer to home, former Davis Cup player McNamee, the tournament director who ran the Australian Open from 1995 until 2006, has joined those who think the 34-year-old Djokovic is receiving a raw deal.
“It’s not fair. 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,” McNamee told ABC News.
“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.”
Djokovic had travelled to Australia after Victoria state authorities granted him an exemption to the vaccination rules but on arrival on Wednesday night, the Australian Border Force rejected the visa as invalid.
A court hearing to attempt to stop his deportation is set for Monday at the secure hotel used more often by immigration officials to house asylum seekers and refugees.
“He is the only player that I’ve ever known in the history of the Australian Open that has had his visa rescinded,” said McNamee.
“Players need to know with confidence that if they’re flying round the world to events, there’s not going to be this sort of problem at entry.
“It’s a problem we’ve seen over the last two years in Australia and the victim of that is the No.1 player in the world.
“He was following the rules. Now you might be angry that he was given an exemption, but players need to have confidence that the rules they abide by are going to be enforced.
“It’s not fair to him. Whether you like the rules or not, he doesn’t make the rules – so he deserves his day on court and not in court, in my opinion.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had on Wednesday defended the decision to deny Djokovic entry, saying “there are no special cases, rules are rules.”
In Serbia, where Djokovic is idolised as a nation hero, his family held a rally in front of the country’s parliament building in the capital Belgrade, with around 300 fans chanting slogans backing him.
His father Srdjan promised the crowd the protests would be held every day until Djokovic was released.
Elsewhere, though, there was no tide of sympathy for Djokovic, with one of his great rivals Rafael Nadal telling reporters in Melbourne that, while feeling sorry for his plight, “at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago.”
At a hearing on Thursday evening, lawyers for Djokovic and the government agreed the player could remain in the country until at least Monday.
McNamee, for one, does not sound as if he would be surprised if Djokovic ends up winning his battle and going for a record 21st grand slam title in Melbourne.
“Clearly he has to appeal it, because there’s no basis that he can’t be accepted with a visa, whether it takes another 24 hours or not,” said McNamee.
“Every time he’s come to Australia, he’s fulfilled the visa requirements, his exemption was approved by the Victorian government and now suddenly the federal government say we may have a problem.
“Now come on, come on…isn’t it too coincidental? Don’t we feel there’s politics involved here?”