Tennis: 'You are our champion': Deported Djokovic welcomed home to Serbia

Novak Djokovic arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade, Serbia, on Jan 17, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
Fans of Novak Djokovic hold a banner that says "Novak God bless you" as they wait for his arrival at Nikola Tesla Airport, in Belgrade, Serbia, on Jan 17, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BELGRADE/MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Novak Djokovic arrived home in Serbia on Monday (Jan 17) after Australia deported the world men's tennis No. 1 for not having a Covid-19 vaccine, jeopardising his quest for a record 21st Grand Slam title.

"You are our champion, Novak!" chanted supporters, some waving national flags, outside Belgrade airport.

The 34-year-old had won nine past Australia Opens and is level with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on 20 titles.

But, instead of beginning his quest for another Melbourne Park Major, he took planes to Dubai then Belgrade after being twice detained in a hotel with asylum-seekers then unceremoniously booted out by Australian immigration.

"100% the Australian Open has lost its value. Whoever wins it now, doesn't really count. Because Djokovic is the number one," said Alek Drakoo, a member of the local Serbian community, who had planned to watch him play in Melbourne.

The government's decision was in tune with Australian public opinion because of Djokovic's stance on inoculation, 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, 34, said in a statement, expressing disappointment but respect for a court decision against him.

Back to Oz?

Under Australian law, he cannot be granted another visa for three years unless the immigration minister accepts there are compelling or compassionate reasons.

But Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison hinted there may be a way to allow 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 and June as things stand now 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. It added, 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.

Djokovic was first detained by immigration authorities on Jan 6, ordered released by a court on Jan 10 and then detained again on Saturday before Sunday's court hearing.

He wore a mask and took selfies with fans as he arrived in Dubai from Melbourne, before taking a terminal buggy to the departure gate for a six-hour flight to Belgrade.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic has called the treatment of a national hero "scandalous".

Fans hold Serbian national flags at the airport as they wait for Novak Djokovic's arrival, on Jan 17, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke had said Djokovic could be a threat to public order because his presence would encourage anti-vaccination sentiment.

His case has stoked a passionate global debate over the rights to decline vaccination as authorities around the world push that as the main route out of the two-year-old pandemic.

'You have to comply'

Djokovic's exemption angered many Australians, who have endured some of the world's toughest lockdowns and have an adult vaccination rate of more than 90 per cent. Some called him arrogant, ill-informed and uncaring about health risks.

The controversy became a political touchstone for Morrison who faces an election by May, amid wrangling over responsibility between his centre-right federal coalition government and the centre-left Victoria state government.

Morrison defended his handling of the situation and differentiated Djokovic's case from vaccine sceptics within his own government.

"If you're someone coming from overseas, and there are conditions for you to enter this country, then you have to comply with them," he said.

Remote video URL

Spain's Nadal said the tournament would not be the same without his great rival.

"If Novak Djokovic is playing here, it's better for everybody, no doubt about that," he told reporters after trouncing American Marcos Giron 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 to sail into the second round.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.