By Courtney Walsh, John Mair and Zoran Milosavljevic
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic faced at least 72 hours holed up in a Melbourne hotel for immigration detainees after he was denied entry into Australia on Thursday amid a political firestorm over his medical exemption from COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
The tennis star, who is chasing a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, remained in the country after his lawyers launched an appeal seeking to overturn the federal government decision. A court agreed not to deport him before a full hearing scheduled for Monday.
The saga, fuelled by domestic political point-scoring about the country's handling of a record surge in new COVID-19 infections, has led to an international row, with Serbia's president claiming his nation's most celebrated sportsman was being harassed.
"They are keeping him as a prisoner," Djokovic's mother, Dijana, said at the family's restaurant in Belgrade. "It's not fair. It's not human."
She said she spoke to the champion on Thursday, and he was struggling to fall asleep. "His accommodation [is] terrible. It's just some small, immigration hotel, if it is a hotel at all. With bugs, it's all dirty. The food is terrible."
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the decision to deny Djokovic entry at a televised news briefing.
"There are no special cases, rules are rules," he said. "We will continue to make the right decisions when it comes to securing Australian borders in relation to this pandemic."
Spanish champion Rafael Nadal told reporters in Melbourne that he felt sorry for his rival "but at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago."
Djokovic, who has consistently refused to disclose his vaccination status while publicly criticising mandatory vaccines, kicked off the furore when he said on Instagram on Tuesday he had received a medical exemption to compete in the Open starting Jan. 17.
The announcement prompted an outcry in Australia, particularly in the tournament host city of Melbourne, which has endured the world's longest cumulative lockdown to ward off the coronavirus.
COURT BATTLE OVER EXEMPTION
At a hearing in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia on Thursday evening, lawyers for Djokovic and the government agreed the player could remain in the country until at least Monday.
Djokovic's fate is tied to a political fight in Australia, characterised by finger-pointing between Morrison's conservative administration and the left-leaning Victoria state government over his medical exemption.
The squabbles rumbled on as Australia's daily COVID-19 infections hit a record high for the fourth consecutive day, overwhelming hospitals and causing labour shortages.
Under Australia's federal system, states and territories can issue exemptions from vaccination requirements to enter their jurisdictions. However, the federal government controls international borders and can challenge such exemptions.
Djokovic received his exemption from the Victorian government. While the reason for his medical exemption was not officially released, The Age newspaper in Melbourne reported on Thursday that it was on the basis that he had contracted COVID-19 in the past six months.
On his arrival, however, Federal Border Force officials at the airport said Djokovic was unable to justify the grounds for his exemption.
The Australian task force that sets the exemption parameters lists the risk of serious cardiac illness from inoculation and a COVID-19 infection in the past six months as qualifiers. But Morrison said Tennis Australia had been advised weeks ago that a recent infection did not meet the criteria for exemption.
Tennis Australia and Victoria government officials said Djokovic had received no preferential treatment.
With the Open to start on Jan. 17, Nick Wood, a lawyer for Djokovic, earlier told Judge Anthony Kelly that Tennis Australia had advised they needed to know about his participation in the tournament by Tuesday.
In response, Kelly, who had asked when Djokovic was scheduled to play his first match, said: "If I can say with the respect necessary, the tail won't be wagging the dog here."
'NOT HUMAN AND NOT FAIR'
The move by the Australian government to block Djokovic's entry has caused ructions between Canberra and Belgrade.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Twitter he had spoken with Djokovic and accused the Australian government of harassment.
"This persecution is unfair, starting with the Australian prime minister," he later told Serbian media. "They are acting as if the same set of rules apply to everyone, but they've let in others on the same grounds that Novak had applied to."
Morrison said he was aware "representations have been made" by the Serbian embassy in Canberra but denied accusations of harassment.
Djokovic's father, Srdjan, told media in Serbia that his son was ushered into an isolation room under police guard when he arrived at Melbourne's Tullamarine airport late on Wednesday after a 14-hour flight from Dubai.
His family held an emotional news conference at Djokovic's restaurant in Belgrade, with his nine previous Australian Open trophies on display, before protesting in front of parliament.
"They are keeping him in captivity. They are stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia," said his father, who earlier described his son to local media as "the Spartacus of the new world".
There was also support on the streets of the Serbian capital.
"He is the best in the history of that sport and they cannot break him in any other way but this one. But they are not going to break him," said Belgrade resident Zdravko Cukic.
(Reporting by Courtney Walsh in Melbourne and John Mair in Sydney; Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Writing by Jane Wardell and Alex Richardson; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore, Hugh Lawson and Cynthia Osterman)