Novak Djokovic in Australian Open draw as visa saga continues

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic remained in limbo even after he was included in the draw for the Australian Open, with the tennis star still awaiting a government decision on whether to deport him for not being vaccinated for COVID-19.

Despite the cloud hanging over Djokovic’s ability to compete, Australian Open organizers included the top seed in the draw. He is slated to play fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic, who is ranked world No. 78., in the opening round next week.

No. 1-ranked Djokovic had his visa canceled on arrival in Melbourne last week when his vaccination exemption was rejected, but he won a legal battle on procedural grounds that allowed him to stay in the country.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has been considering the question since a judge reinstated Djokovic’s visa.

Expectations of a pending decision were raised when Prime Minister Scott Morrison called an afternoon news conference after a national Cabinet meeting. Speculation heightened when the tournament draw was postponed by 75 minutes to a time after Morrison’s news conference.

The wait continued after both events concluded, with Morrison referring questions on Djokovic to his immigration minister.

“These are personal ministerial powers able to be exercised by Minister Hawke and I don’t propose to make any further comment at this time,” Morrison said.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley also declined comment after the draw ceremony for the tournament.

The 34-year-old Djokovic has been trying to focus his attention on the playing court in the four days since he was released from immigration detention. He held a practice session at Rod Laver Arena, his fourth this week, in mid-afternoon.

He was on the practice court when a statement posted on his social media accounts acknowledged that his Australian travel declaration form contained incorrect information.

In the statement, Djokovic blamed “human error” by his support team for failing to declare that he had traveled in the two-week period before entering Australia.

Giving false information on the form could be grounds for deportation. That could result in sanctions ranging up to a three-year ban from entering Australia, a daunting prospect for a player who has won almost half of his 20 Grand Slam singles titles here.

Djokovic acknowledged the lapses when he sought to clarify what he called “continuing misinformation” about his movements after he became infected last month. It also raised questions about his public appearances in Serbia last month, particularly a media interview he attended despite knowing he was positive.

It was another twist in a saga over whether the athlete should be allowed stay in Australia despite not being vaccinated.

The initial news that Djokovic was granted an exemption to strict vaccination rules to enter the country provoked an outcry and the ensuing dispute has since overshadowed the lead-up to the Australian Open.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said most Australians disapproved of the nine-time and defending Australian Open champion coming to Melbourne to compete in breach of the nation’s tough pandemic quarantine rules.

“Most of us thought because Mr. Djokovic hadn’t been vaxxed twice that he would be asked to leave,” Joyce said. “Well, that was our view, but it wasn’t the court’s view.”

“The vast majority of Australians … didn’t like the idea that another individual, whether they’re a tennis player or … the king of Spain or the Queen of England, can come up here and have a different set of rules to what everybody else has to deal with,” Joyce added.

No. 4-seeded player Stefanos Tsitsipas told India’s WION TV channel that Djokovic seemed to be “playing by his own rules.”

“No one would have really thought, you know, `I can just come to Australia unvaccinated and not having to follow the protocols that they gave me,”‘ Tsitsipas said. “It takes a lot of daring to do, I think, and putting a Grand Slam kind of at risk.”

The debate over Djokovic’s presence in Australia rages against a backdrop of surging COVID-19 infections across the nation.

Victoria state, which hosts the Australian Open, eased seven-day isolation rules for close contacts of those infected in sectors including education and transport to curb the number of employees staying away from work.

The state recorded 37,169 new cases in the latest 24-hour period, as well as 25 deaths and 953 hospitalizations. With cases surging, the Victoria state government moved to limit ticket sales to the tennis tournament in a bid to reduce the risk of transmission.

Djokovic’s visa status has been debated since he arrived more than a week ago, after posting on social media that he had received exemption permission.

At issue is whether he has a valid exemption to strict rules requiring vaccination to enter Australia since he recently recovered from COVID-19.

His exemption to compete was approved by the Victoria state government and Tennis Australia, the tournament organizer. That apparently allowed him to receive a visa to travel.

But the Australian Border Force rejected the exemption and canceled his visa upon arrival before a federal judge overturned that decision. Lawyers for the government have said an infection was only grounds for an exemption in cases in which the coronavirus caused severe illness – though it’s not clear why he was issued a visa if that’s the case.

If Djokovic’s visa is canceled, his lawyers could go back to court to apply for an injunction that would prevent him from being forced to leave the country.

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

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LONDON – Former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco accepted a voluntary provisional doping suspension of two months after testing positive for a medication for ADHD, the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Verdasco, who turned 39 this month, said he was taking methylphenidate as medication prescribed by his doctor to treat ADHD but forgot to renew his therapeutic use exemption for the drug. The integrity agency said Verdasco has now been granted an exemption by the World Anti-Doping Agency moving forward.

He tested positive at an ATP Challenger tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

The integrity agency said in a news release that it “accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” and so what could have been a two-year suspension was reduced to two months.

Verdasco will be eligible to compete on Jan. 8.

The Spaniard is a four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, reaching that stage most recently in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he blew a two-set lead in a five-set loss to eventual champion Andy Murray.

Verdasco reached a career-best ranking of No. 7 in April 2009 and currently is No. 125.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports
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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”