BELGRADE/MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic returned to a hero’s welcome in Serbia on Monday after Australia deported the world men’s tennis No. 1 for being unvaccinated against COVID-19, a stance jeopardising his quest for a record 21st Grand Slam title.
Most Australians had wanted him gone, but Serbian supporters waved national flags and lauded him on arrival at Belgrade airport.
“You are our champion, Novak!” and “We love you, Nole!” they chanted, using his diminutive name.
The 34-year-old “King of Melbourne” had won nine previous Australia Opens, is level with Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer on 20 titles, and was top men’s seed for the tournament that got underway on Monday.
But instead of beginning his title defence as scheduled at Melbourne Park detained in a hotel with asylum-seekers and then unceremoniously booted out by Australian immigration.
“Whoever wins it now, doesn’t really count,” said Alek Drakoo, a member of the Australian Serbian community, disappointed to miss seeing him in Melbourne.
The Australian government’s decision was in tune with majority public opinion, but authorities have been criticised for not resolving the issue before he arrived.
“I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and the tournament I love,” Djokovic said, expressing disappointment but respect for a court decision against him.
BACK TO AUSTRALIA?
Under Australian law, he cannot return for three years unless the immigration minister accepts there are compelling or compassionate reasons. Prime Minister Scott Morrison hinted there may be a way to let him in next year.
“There is the opportunity for (a person) to return in the right circumstances, and that will be considered at the time,” he told 2GB radio.
France said Djokovic would be barred from playing the French Open in May as things stand because of a new vaccine pass law.
“This will apply to everyone who is a spectator or a professional sportsperson,” the ministry said in a statement adding, however, that the pandemic situation could change by then. “We’ll see, but clearly there’s no exemption.”
Australia’s Federal Court ruling to uphold the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa - originally granted on a medical exemption as he recently had COVID-19 - dismayed his family and supporters who portray him as a persecuted underdog.