BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Novak Djokovic arrived in his native Serbia on Monday after being deported from Australia because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, ending his hopes of defending his Australian Open title.
The tennis star’s exit from Australia closed at least the first chapter in a dizzying drama that has resonance in the world of elite sports, Australian pandemic politics and the polarized debate over the COVID-19 shots. But at the same time another chapter opened as questions arose over whether he would be barred from the next Grand Slam tournament, the French Open.
A plane carrying the No. 1-ranked player from his stopover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, touched down in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, where he is expected to receive a hero’s welcome. A handful of fans waving the Serbian flag greeted him at the airport.
Djokovic had argued in an Australian court he should be allowed to stay and compete because a recent coronavirus infection meant he was exempt from strict vaccination rules. But Australian authorities cited the public interest in revoking his visa, saying his presence could stir up anti-vaccine sentiments and that kicking him out was necessary to keep Australians safe.
The Grand Slam started Monday in Melbourne, where Djokovic has won nine titles. He had hoped this year to win his 21st Grand Slam singles trophy there, breaking the record he shares with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis. Federer is not playing while recovering from injury, but Nadal is competing.
Even as he flew home from Australia, doubts arose over whether Djokovic would be able to play in the French Open. A member of the French Parliament said a new law that will exclude unvaccinated people from sports venues, restaurants and other public places will apply anyone who wants to play in the tournament.
The comments Monday from Christophe Castaner and a tweet from the sports minister late Sunday marked a reversal from prior plans to create a “bubble” around the tournament, scheduled for late May into June.
France’s sports ministry said Monday once the new law is in place, there will be no exceptions until further notice.
For now, a warm welcome likely awaits Djokovic, who has overwhelming support in his native Serbia where his closest family lives. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has accused the Australian government of “harassing” the top-ranked tennis star and urged him to return where he would be welcomed.
Djokovic flew to Australia with a visa issued after he received an exemption to play in the tournament because he had recently recovered from COVID-19. But border said that exemption wasn’t valid and moved to deport him.
A legal battle ensued, but ultimately Australia’s immigration minister revoked his visa, and judicial panel upheld that decision.
Vaccination amid the pandemic is a requirement for anyone at the Australian Open, whether players, their coaches or anyone at the tournament site. More than 95% of all Top 100 men and women in their tours’ respective rankings are vaccinated. At least two other men — American Tennys Sandgren and Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert — skipped the first major tournament of the year due to the vaccine requirement.
Djokovic’s attempt to get the medical exemption for not being vaccinated sparked anger in Australia, where strict lockdowns in cities and curbs on international travel have been employed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus since the pandemic began.
Djokovic tested positive in Belgrade on Dec. 16, but received the result late Dec. 17, he said, and scrapped all his commitments except a long-standing interview with L’Equipe newspaper the following day. He later described this “an error” of judgment.
Asked if Djokovic would face any penalties for flouting his isolation while being infected when he returns to Serbia, Serbian officials said he would not because the country is not in a state of emergency.
Djokovic has almost an iconic status in Serbia, whose president had called the court hearing in Australia “a farce with a lot of lies.”
“They think that they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, and they actually humiliated themselves. If you said that the one who was not vaccinated has no right to enter, Novak would not come or would be vaccinated,” Vucic told reporters.