Belgrade to receive Djokovic as a hero after deportation from Australia

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic (C) departs from the Park Hotel government detention facility before attending a court hearing at his lawyers office in Melbourne, Australia, 16 January 2022. [EPA-EFE/JAMES ROSS]

Tennis superstar Novak Djokovic flew out of Australia on Sunday (16 January) after a court upheld the government’s decision to cancel his visa, capping days of drama over the country’s COVID-19 entry rules and his unvaccinated status.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge Federal Court bench dealt a final blow to Djokovic’s hopes of chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open that starts on Monday, dismaying his family and supporters.

The winner of a record nine titles at Melbourne Park, including the last three in succession, Djokovic’s hopes of continuing his dynasty and claiming a record 21st Grand Slam title lay in ruins on Sunday after the court ruling.

Anti-vaxxer hero

Many Australians will be glad to be rid of an athlete who had become a hero of the anti-vaxxer movement, while players will be relieved the spotlight can shift back to tennis.

But the loss of the world number one is a blow for a men’s tournament which was already lacking star power after the withdrawals of Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem.

Djokovic’s exit from Australia may have major repercussions for his tennis career, particularly if he continues to snub COVID-19 vaccination.

But for the players left in Melbourne, it is a golden opportunity.

None may be more pleased than sixth seed Rafa Nadal, who remains level with the Serbian and Federer on 20 Grand Slam titles.

The 2009 winner and four-times finalist, Nadal is the only Australian Open champion left in the draw.

The Serbian player went to the airport in Melbourne just hours after the court decision. He made a brief statement that he was extremely disappointed by the court ruling and would respect it.

Federal agents escorted him and his team from the business lounge to the gate, where he boarded an Emirates flight bound for Dubai. From there, he will fly to Belgrade, arriving on Monday.

Djokovic’s family on Sunday denounced as “scandalous” Australia’s deportation of the tennis star for not being vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Serbian president said he would always be welcome in his homeland.

‘This is how world order works’

The Covid vaccination rate in Serbia is 46.8%. With elections looming in April, Vucic has tried to walk a fine line, both encouraging vaccinations while steadfastly defending the nation’s favorite son.

Vucic said he had spoken to Djokovic after the court decision.

“A literal witch hunt was whipped up against one person and one country because they wanted to show Novak Djokovic how world order works, and how they can treat anyone they choose like this,” the Serbian president said.

“It’s not Novak that is humiliated. The Australian humiliated themselves with this kind of procedures”, Vucic said, speaking in English, blaming the authorities in Canberra  for “ten days of torturing him” and “the terrible media campaign launched by them” against the Serbian tennis player.

Djokovic’s family said in a statement that they were “very disappointed” with the decision by the Australian authorities, and that the court ruling was related with “politics and all (other) interests.”

“Despite the scandalous behaviour towards Novak, we believed that the sport would win,” the family said.

Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic also described the decision to deport Djokovic as “scandalous”.

“I am disappointed…I think it demonstrated how the rule of law is functioning, or better to say not functioning, in some other countries. In any case, I can hardly wait to see Novak Djokovic in our own country, in Serbia,” Brnabic told reporters in Belgrade.

The world’s top men’s tennis player was first detained by Australian immigration authorities on 6 January, ordered released by a court on 10 January and then detained again on Saturday, after Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used discretionary powers to cancel his visa.

The Serbian Tennis Association (TSS) said in a statement that the “farce is over” and “politics has beaten sport.”

“Novak Djokovic…has been denied an opportunity to win a milestone 10th title (in Australia). Political pressure has led to the revocation of his visa to satisfy ‘public interest’,” the TSS said.

“…It begs the question whether athletes will from now on be incarcerated like criminals and deported when it suits the political interests of powerful individuals,” it said.

Sports Minister Vanja Udovicic, a former professional water polo player, said Djokovic was the best tennis player ever. “Everything else is nonsense and shame, absurdity and hypocrisy! Legend, pride of Serbia, we are with you,” he said.

In the Serbian capital Belgrade, Djokovic’s home city, many support him though some felt he should have been vaccinated.

“I think Australia should be ashamed of itself and that the decision was not a just one. I am sorry for Novak as a tennis player and as a person,” said Danilo Mircic, a student.

“If I were him, I would get vaccinated and avoid problems in the future,” said Aleksandar Janjic, a middle-aged computer programmer.

When Djokovic returns home to his hometown of Belgrade, he will be welcomed as a hero. At the airport, in central squares and in the working-class neighborhood of Banjica, where he partly grew up, crowds of Serbs will be cheering for him, fans predicted.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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