Deported Djokovic back home in Serbia, vaccine row clouds future

A man takes a selfie with Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic as he arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport, after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Belgrade, Serbia Jan 17, 2022. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
World men's tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic returned home reluctantly on Monday after being kicked out of the Australian Open due to his unvaccinated COVID-19 status which could now cloud his participation in future tournaments.

The Serb has won nine major titles in Australia and is level with Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slams each.

But instead of beginning his quest for a record 21st major title at Melbourne Park, 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, adding, however, that the pandemic situation could change by then. "We'll see, but clearly there's no exemption."