Novak Djokovic was on his way to Australia to play at this month's Grand Slam after receiving a medical exemption but Prime Minister Scott Morrison vowed on Wednesday to send the world number one home if the Serbian cannot prove he deserves it.
Djokovic, who has won nine titles at Melbourne Park including the last three, confirmed on Tuesday that he would bid for a record 21st major title at the Australian Open, which starts on Jan. 17.
"We have all been through lockdowns, restrictions, homeschooling and made countless changes to our lives so don't tell me that Djokovic is oblivious to what Australians have been through."
His announcement that he had received a medical exemption to play the tournament without being vaccinated against COVID-19 provoked outrage in Melbourne, which has endured the world's longest cumulative lockdown and where an outbreak of the Omicron variant has sent case numbers to record levels.
Morrison suggested Djokovic's participation was still not a done deal and he will have to satisfy the federal government, which has responsibility for international borders and visas and was not part of the process of granting exemptions.
"If that evidence is insufficient, then he won't be treated any different to anyone else and he'll be on the next plane home. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever," Morrison told a media conference.
Morrison said there had been numerous exemptions granted to people who had been able to support their application.
Tennis Australia and government officials moved quickly to stress that Djokovic, who has said he is opposed to COVID-19 vaccinations, had received no preferential treatment but that cut little ice with some.
"We have all been through lockdowns, restrictions, homeschooling and made countless changes to our lives so don't tell me that Djokovic is oblivious to what Australians have been through," former Australian player turned media pundit Sam Groth wrote in a column for News Corp.
Melbourne local Christine Wharton said it was a "disgrace". "We've all done the right thing, we've all gone out and got our jabs and our boosters and we have someone that's come from overseas and all of a sudden he's been exempt and can play and I think it's an absolute disgrace and I won't be watching it."
Organizers of Tennis Australia have stipulated that everyone at Melbourne Park must be vaccinated or have a medical exemption granted by an independent panel of experts.
With the exemption, Djokovic will not be required to quarantine and will enjoy the same freedoms in Melbourne as someone who is vaccinated.
Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley said the independent panel consisted of doctors from the fields of immunology, infectious disease and general practice and all exemptions met conditions set out by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.
"We completely understand and empathize with ... people being upset about the fact that Novak has come in because of his statements over the past couple of years around vaccination," he told reporters.
Tiley acknowledged that questions will be asked about the exemption and the only person who can answer them is Djokovic. "It'll certainly be helpful if Novak was to explain the conditions in which he's sought an exemption ... but ultimately it's up to him," he said.
Djokovic has repeatedly declined to reveal his vaccination status and previously said he was unsure whether he would compete in Melbourne.
Playing the tournament will give him the chance to nose ahead of Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, who also have 20 Grand Slam crowns.
"I think lots of people in the Victorian community will find this to be a disappointing outcome," acting Victorian Sports Minister Jaala Pulford told reporters.
"But the process is the process; nobody has had special treatment. The process is incredibly robust. It's de-identified and we are where we are, and so the tennis can begin."
The decision has drawn a mixed reaction from fellow players. American doubles specialist Nicole Melichar-Martinez tweeted: "I don't understand why @DjokerNole is getting so much hate for his vaccine exemption. He's within the rules, and the government could have said 'no' but they didn't."
Australian Alex De Minaur described it as "interesting", saying: "It is what it is, I just hope that the other players ... I heard there were other cases as well ... they got exemptions, so I hope they will all fit the criteria."