MELBOURNE: Rafael Nadal took a swipe at rival Novak Djokovic on Saturday as the world number one fights deportation from Australia, saying: “The Australian Open is much more important than any player.”
Ahead of the start of the first Grand Slam on Monday, Nadal told reporters at Melbourne Park: “Australian Open will be a great Australian Open with or without him.”
Djokovic is still in the draw to defend his title but faces deportation from the country before then after the Australian government canceled his visa for a second time, calling him a threat to public order.
The long-running saga over whether the unvaccinated Serbian can stay in the country has overshadowed the first Grand Slam of the year, where Djokovic and Nadal would both be trying to become the first man to win 21 majors.
Nadal said he respected Djokovic “as a person, of course, and as an athlete, without a doubt.”
But the Spaniard added: “I really respect him, even if I don’t agree with a lot of the things that he did the last couple of weeks.”
And he said that the controversy had dragged on too long.
“I think the situation have been too far. Honestly I’m a little bit tired of the situation because I just believe that it’s important to talk about our sport, about tennis,” Nadal said.
As he fights his fights on, Djokovic will spend Saturday night in immigration detention before seeking a court ruling to stop his deportation and keep alive his bid for a record 21st major title at the Australian Open.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke decided to cancel the Serbian superstar’s visa because his presence could foster opposition to COVID-19 vaccination in Australia, court documents released after an initial hearing in the Federal Court on Saturday showed.
It will be a second stint in detention for Djokovic, who spent his first four nights in Australia in hotel , detention before a judge freed him on Monday after finding a decision to cancel his visa on arrival had been unreasonable.
“Although I ... accept that Mr.Djokovic poses a negligible individual risk of transmitting COVID-19 to other persons, I nonetheless consider that his presence may be a risk to the health of the Australian community,” Hawke said in a letter to Djokovic and his legal team.
This explanation in Djokovic’s affidavit is more detailed than the brief statement Hawke released on Friday, which said his decision was based on “health and good order grounds.”
Justice David O’Callaghan set a hearing on Djokovic’s appeal for 9:30 a.m. Sunday (2230 GMT Saturday), with the question of whether it would be held before a single judge or a full court still to be determined.
Djokovic’s lawyers said on Friday they would argue deportation would only further fan anti-vaccine sentiment and would be as much a threat to disorder and public health as letting him stay and exempting him from Australia’s requirement that all visitors be vaccinated.
A court order on Friday night had required the 34-year-old to surrender to immigration officials for an interview on Saturday morning, before he would be taken to his lawyers’ officers for the preliminary hearing. After leaving his lawyers, he is to be taken into immigration detention.
Border Force and the immigration minister’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether Djokovic had attended the interview.
The government has said it would not deport Djokovic until his appeal has been heard. Djokovic wants to be able defend his title at the Australian Open, which begins on Monday.
Djokovic’s medical exemption from vaccine requirements to play the Open prompted enormous anger in Australia, which has undergone some the world’s toughest COVID-19 lockdowns and where more than 90 percent of adults are vaccinated, but hospitalization rates continue to hit record highs.
With global scientists and policymakers focused on vaccinating as many people as possible to end the pandemic, the refusal of Djokovic to get the jab has fueled the anti-vaccination movement, especially in his native Serbia and surrounding countries.
The controversy over the tennis player has become a political touchstone for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he prepares for an election due by May.
His government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security during the pandemic, but it has faced criticism for its handling of Djokovic’s visa application.
Djokovic, scheduled to play fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovi in the first round of the Open, is hunting a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title. But instead of hitting Rod Laver Arena on Monday, he could be deported on a flight out of Melbourne.
He has the option of withdrawing and leaving Australia of his own accord.
“Australian Open is much more important than any player,” said Nadal, whom Djokovic considers his greatest rival on a tennis court.
“If he’s playing finally, OK. If he’s not playing, Australian Open will be great ... with or without him.”