Djokovic returns to a warm embrace in his home country of Serbia
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BELGRADE, Serbia — Novak Djokovic, undone in his pursuit of a 10th Australian Open tennis championship by his decision not to be vaccinated against Covid-19, returned to the warm embrace of his homeland on Monday , Serbia, even as their future in the sport was shrouded in uncertainty.
He landed in Belgrade a day after being deported from Australia following a decision by the Australian government to revoke his visa over fears he would inspire anti-vaccination sentiment.
As he slipped out of a private exit at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla International Airport to avoid a crowd of waiting reporters, nearly two weeks of legal wrangling, political posturing and intense media focus came to an end rather quietly.
The few dozen supporters who made their way to the airport waved flags, chanted their support for Mr Djokovic and complained that their hero had been mistreated.
One of them, Simon Avramov, came with his wife and two young children.
“The world couldn’t let someone from this small country be a champion,” he said.
But if Mr Djokovic chooses to remain unvaccinated, it won’t just be Australia where he could struggle to play. His quest to win a record 21st Grand Slam title could be in jeopardy as other nations also have rules on allowing unvaccinated travellers.
The swirling drama in Australia – which has transcended the world of sport into part of a wider debate over civil liberties and collective responsibility – may just be the first chapter in the tennis star’s saga.
The French Open is the next major tournament on the calendar, due to start in May, and the French sports ministry said on Monday it would not grant exemptions to its latest rules on vaccine passes , which he said applied to professional players as well as spectators.
But a tournament representative also said the situation could change before the event takes place.
In Australia, where Mr Djokovic has been the dominant force for the past decade, he may not be allowed to return for another three years.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told an Australian radio station on Monday that Mr Djokovic could be allowed to enter earlier under the “right circumstances”.
Home Secretary Karen Andrews said she had not ruled out a waiver.
“Any application will be considered on its merits,” she said.
Mr Djokovic had presented evidence when he first landed in Australia that he was exempt from the national vaccination mandate because he had already been infected with the virus.
As soon as he landed, however, his visa was challenged by border officials and later revoked by the government. Mr. Djokovic appealed this decision and a court ruled in his favour.
The showdown between Novak Djokovic and Australia
But just four days later, the Australian government again revoked his visa. This time, the government did not challenge Mr. Djokovic’s visa on technical grounds.
Instead, he argued that his decision to remain unvaccinated was itself a danger because it could inspire others to resist inoculation.
On Sunday, the court ruled in favor of the government and within hours Mr Djokovic had left the country, traveling first to Dubai and then to Belgrade.
While he was in full flight, the tallest skyscraper in downtown Belgrade was lit up in his honor.
“Nole, you are the pride of Serbia,” he said, using the tennis star’s affectionate nickname.
In Serbia, where vaccine skepticism runs deep, even those who disagree with his decision not to be vaccinated say he was treated badly.
Mr Djokovic made no public comment on his return home. In a statement after the court ruling, he said he was not comfortable with all the public attention on him and wanted the attention back on tennis.
As he arrives in Belgrade, the Melbourne tournament is just beginning. Without its defending champion.
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