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Novak Djokovic: Tennis star lands in Belgrade after losing Australia visa fight

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By Euronews  with AP
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Novak Djokovic looks as his documents after landing in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022
Novak Djokovic looks as his documents after landing in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Novak Djokovic has arrived in his native Serbia, having left Australia on Sunday after a local court dismissed his appeal against a deportation order because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19.

The ruling finally dashed the top-ranked tennis star’s hopes of playing at the Australian Open, to defend his title and bid for a record 21st Grand Slam.

Djokovic's plane carrying him from the United Arab Emirates landed in Belgrade after midday local time on Monday. Supporters were at the airport to greet him, some chanting and waving Serbian flags.

One fan, Mariana Maljenovic, said she was there to encourage him to "continue in his own style". "That is what makes him special and different, and the most wonderful person in the world," she said.

However, it seems the player managed largely to avoid the cameras and left the airport without seeking attention or making a statement.

The men's tennis world number one landed in Dubai earlier on Monday, after taking off from Melbourne on an Emirates flight to head for the same UAE city from which he had flown to Australia.

His choice of the Serbian capital has surprised some, given that his residence is in Monte Carlo and his family live there.

Residents of the Serbian capital sent warm messages to Djokovic on Monday. Djokovic has overwhelming support from his home country, whose president said Australia embarrassed itself. He has also been held up as a hero by some in the anti-vaccine movement.

Serbs rally around Djokovic

On Monday night, Djokovic was supposed to play Miomir Kecmanović, a Serbian ranked 78th, at Rod Laver Arena, the main stadium.

Instead, Kecmanović headed to a smaller arena to face 150th-ranked Salvatore Caruso of Italy, a so-called “lucky loser” — someone who loses in qualifying rounds but gets access to the main draw because someone else withdraws after the first day's schedule was released.

Kecmanović dedicated his 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 to his fellow Serb, saying Djokovic had been treated unjustly by politicians.

In Djokovic’s native Serbia, president Aleksandar Vučić described the court hearing at which the player lost his appeal as “a farce with a lot of lies”.

“They think that they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, but they actually humiliated themselves. If you said that the person who was not vaccinated has no right to enter, Novak would not come or would get vaccinated," Vučić told reporters.

He said he told Djokovic "that we can’t wait to see him in Serbia, to return to his country, to come where he is always welcome.” He did not say whether Djokovic discussed whether he would first go to Serbia following his deportation.

Djokovic 'deeply disappointed'

Three Federal Court judges upheld a decision made on Friday by the immigration minister Alex Hawke to cancel the 34-year-old Serb’s visa on public interest grounds.

The judges dismissed the claims by Djokovic’s defence that the rationale for the cancellation was “invalid” and “illogical”.

A deportation order usually also includes a three-year ban on returning to Australia.

This also marks an end to the world tennis No. 1's attempt to defend his Australian Open title and win a record 21st Grand Slam title.

In a brief statement after the verdict, Djokovic stated he was “deeply disappointed”, but also vowed to cooperate with the authorities.

“I will take some time to get some rest and recuperate before making further comments,” Djokovic said.

Hawke cancelled the visa on the grounds that Djokovic’s presence in Australia may represent a risk to the health and “good order” of the Australian public and could be counterproductive to efforts at vaccination by others in Australia.

Prime minister Scott Morrison welcomed what he described as the “decision to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe”.

The national federation that runs the tournament, Tennis Australia, said it respects the decision of the Federal Court. “We look forward to a competitive and exciting Australian Open 2022 and wish all players the best of luck,” it said in a statement.

Djokovic’s visa was initially cancelled on 6 January at Melbourne’s airport hours after he arrived to compete in the first Grand Slam of 2022.

A border official cancelled his visa after deciding Djokovic did not qualify for a medical exemption from Australia’s rules for unvaccinated visitors.

Focus is now shifting onto his participation in other major tournaments — not least the French Open at Roland Garros in the spring, after the French health minister suggested professional athletes will have to be vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID to take part in competitions in France.