A hero's welcome greeted Novak Djokovic on his arrival back on home soil in Serbia on Monday after he was deported from Australia for failing to meet the country’s Covid-19 vaccination requirements.
The world's No. 1 male player was greeted by journalists and supporters after landing in Belgrade, Serbia, at around 12:10 local time (6:10 a.m. ET).
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Djokovic missed out on the chance to defend his Australian Open title, or to add to his tally of 20 Grand Slam tennis trophies, after his lawyers failed to convince an Australian court Sunday that he should be given a medical exemption after contracting Covid last month.
Djokovic, 34, is unvaccinated and has said it is matter of personal choice. He said he had been given a medical exemption to take part in the tournament — something that angered many Australians who have endured strict Covid restrictions on their everyday lives and on travel.
He admitted Wednesday, however, that his travel form to get into Australia included a false statement and that he had failed to immediately isolate after testing positive, adding to the scrutiny from Australian officials and the world’s media.
However, the tennis star returns home to a wave of public support. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has accused Australia of harassing Djokovic and said the authorities had “humiliated themselves“ over the matter.
After winning his first round match in five sets, fellow Serbian player Dušan Lajović displayed a Serbian flag featuring a picture of Djokovic, bearing the message “like it or not, The Greatest of All Time.”
“I think the way they treated him was terribly wrong, I think the decision itself was terribly wrong,” Lajovic said after his match.
A week ago, Djokovic won an appeal to stay for the tournament, but Alex Hawke, Australia’s immigration minister, later used his personal powers to have the visa canceled. Three federal court judges upheld the decision Sunday, sealing the Serb's fate.
Asked if Djokovic would face any penalties for flouting his isolation while being infected, Serbian officials told The Associated Press he would not because the country is not in a state of emergency.
With Roger Federer not competing in Melbourne due to injury, Rafael Nadal is the only former men’s Australian Open champion remaining in the competition.
Meanwhile, doubt was cast on Djokovic's participation in the French Open in May after Sports Minister Roxana Mărăcineanu said in a tweet Sunday night that French law would require vaccination for all spectators and competitors in public stadiums.
Djokovic, who said in 2020 he was against vaccination, has become a focal point for the burgeoning anti-vaccine movement internationally.
Supporters who gathered outside the Melbourne hotel where he was detained last week included anti-vaccine campaigners who fervently believe vaccine passports to be anti-democratic.
One protester’s placard read: “Novax Djokovic — hostage of the communist state of Dan Andrews. Are we in a pandemic about health? Novak looks healthy to me.”
Dan Andrews, the premier of the Australian state of Victoria, attracted anti-vaccine protesters’ ire with a blunt assessment of the Djokovic saga: “It’s very simple, just get vaccinated. And then everyone’s time wouldn’t have to be wasted with this.”
The social network Telegram was awash with messages of support, many from people who believe in conspiracy theories about the origin of Covid and the ulterior motives of governments across the world.
“I believe he is not only a great Tennis Player but also a Freedom Fighter. We stand together with Novak,” wrote one person in the group Novak Djokovic fans worldwide, whose profile picture displayed former President Donald Trump and the message: “Fight for Trump, January 6, we’re comin’!”
The Tommy Robinson News Telegram channel shared a picture of Djokovic and said: “Novak Djokovic is the the first athlete in history to be banned and deported for not taking drugs. Couldn’t make it up.”
The channel, which is named after the British far-right activist and has become a common source of anti-vaccine sentiment in the United Kingdom, has more than 150,000 subscribers.