‘Our champion’: deported Djokovic welcomed home after Australian fiasco

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic walks with his team after landing at Dubai Airport after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

BELGRADE/MELBOURNE, Jan 17 (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic returned to a rapturous welcome in Serbia on Monday after Australia deported the world men’s tennis No. 1 for being unvaccinated against COVID-19, a stance jeopardising his quest for a record 21st Grand Slam title.

Most Australians had wanted him gone, but Serbian fans cheered and waved national flags as Djokovic touched down at Belgrade airport then headed to his own apartment.

“You are our champion, Novak!” and “We love you, Nole!” they chanted, using an affectionate diminutive.

But instead of beginning his title defence as scheduled at Melbourne Park, he flew to Belgrade via Dubai after being twice detained in a hotel with asylum-seekers and then unceremoniously booted out by Australian immigration.

The Australian government’s decision was in tune with majority public opinion, but authorities drew flak for the chaotic handling of the issue.

“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 said, expressing disappointment but respect for a court decision against him.

BACK TO AUSTRALIA?

Under Australian law, he cannot return for three years unless the immigration minister accepts there are compelling or compassionate reasons. Prime Minister Scott Morrison hinted there may be a way to let 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 as things stand 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.

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