Belgrade: Deported tennis star Novak Djokovic posed for selfies upon arrival at Belgrade Airport on Monday, but fresh threats of grand slam bans were already overshadowing the world No.1’s warm welcome home.
As the first day of play at Melbourne Park wrapped up without its defending champion, Djokovic and his entourage touched down in Belgrade on a Fly Dubai flight just after midday local time.
Police manned a VIP exit at the airport where hundreds of media crew were gathered behind a metal wire barricade.
A handful of fans also awaited their hero, some draping themselves in Serbia’s national flag and singing that Novak or “Nole”, as he is called in Serbia, was their hero.
But they were denied a glimpse of the star, who left via another exit, successfully avoiding the glare of cameras that captured his ignominious exit from Melbourne as he was deported from Australia on the grounds that his presence could fuel anti-vaccination sentiment.
Djokovic is not vaccinated and used a December 16 COVID infection to claim an exemption to enter Australia, despite the requirement that visa-holders be double-jabbed.
Border Force revoked his visa, a decision later overturned by the Federal Circuit Court. However, the Australian government eventually prevailed when Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used his powers to deport the star.
Petar Civkovic, 18, waited with friend for Djokovic, a show of support intended to demonstrate that the Serbian that he was still loved at home, despite Australia’s treatment of their star.
“It’s hurt us so much because Novak is our pride,” he said.
“Novak is most of what we have. Our people love sport so much and whenever Novak plays it’s like a holiday.
“We love him so much, he is our champion, our ambassador in the world – wherever he goes, it says Serbia next to his name and that’s what he means to us.”
He said Mr Hawke and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had behaved like Orwellian characters – it wasn’t the first time the 1984 author has been dragged into the saga.
“I myself am double-jabbed with the vaccine, but I think it’s a freedom of choice – that’s what they gave us here, in Serbia they gave us a choice of vaccines,” he said.
“He [Djokovic] wasn’t a threat to Australian people because if 92 per cent of people of Australia are vaccinated, how will he ignite an anti-vaccine movement?
“We just want him to see that people love him here, that we support him, no matter what.”
Senad, 35, also from Belgrade, said the Australian deportation would not rob Djokovic of his quest to become the GOAT – the Greatest of All Time. Djokovic is currently tied on 20 grand slam titles with rivals Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Australian Open or at Roland Garros, he’s going to become the best of all time with another grand slam,” Senad said.
“Even if he doesn’t win any grand slam and if he stopped playing now, he’s going to be the world No.1.”
But on Monday, the French government gave its strongest indication yet that Djokovic could have trouble competing in France.
France’s tough new vaccine pass law – approved by parliament on Sunday – removes the option for people to use a recent negative test or COVID infection to gain access to restaurants, cafes, long-distance trains, cultural and entertainment venues, and – crucially for Djokovic – sporting facilities.
France’s Sports Ministry said the vaccination rule would also apply across the board to French citizens and visitors, including professional athletes.
“The rule is simple. The vaccine pass will be imposed, as soon as the law is promulgated, in establishments that were already subject to the health pass,” the ministry said.
“This will apply to everyone who is a spectator or a professional sportsperson. And this until further notice.”
Under French Tennis Federation (FFT) guidelines, vaccination will be required to access courts, training facilities and clubhouses. Roland Garros in Paris – which will host the French Open from May 22 – is affiliated with the FFT.
Gilles Moretton, the president of the FFT, said organisers were working with authorities to clarify how the vaccine pass might affect the tournament’s ability to welcome unvaccinated players.
On Twitter, the Sport Minister Roxana Maracineanu – herself a former Olympic medallist – said the rules would apply to all athletes.
However – depending on the broader COVID situation – she left the door open for the nationwide restrictions to be lifted before the Open, which takes place one month after the French presidential election.
On Monday, Christophe Castaner, an influential member of the French parliament who is also a loyal lieutenant of President Emmanuel Macron, said that the vaccine law would apply anyone who wanted to play in the French Open – a reversal of earlier plans to create a “bubble” around the tournament.
Macron – yet to officially declare his candidacy for re-election – is likely to make his tough stance on vaccination a cornerstone of any campaign run.
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