DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Novak Djokovic was heading home to Serbia on Monday after his deportation from Australia over its required COVID-19 vaccination ended the No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player’s hopes of defending his Australian Open title.
An Emirates plane carrying him from Australia landed in Dubai early Monday, and Djokovic was later seen on board a plane due to land in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, at 12:10 CET. His lawyers had argued in an Australian court on Sunday that he should be allowed to stay in the country and compete in the tournament under a medical exemption due to a coronavirus infection last month.
Djokovic has won nine Australian Open titles, including three in a row, and a total of 20 Grand Slam singles trophies, tied 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, and Nadal is the only former Australian Open men’s champion in the tournament that began Monday.
Djokovic 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 had tested positive with coronavirus in Belgrade on Dec. 16, which he used as an argument to enter Australia, but his visa was initially canceled on Jan. 6 by a border official who decided he didn’t qualify for a medical exemption from Australia’s rules for unvaccinated visitors.
He won an appeal to stay for the tournament, but Australia’s immigration minister later revoked his visa. Three Federal Court judges decided unanimously Sunday to affirm the immigration minister’s right to cancel Djokovic’s visa.
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 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 Aleksandar Vucic said the court hearing in Australia was “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.