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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Djokovic returns to warm embrace in home country of Serbia

Fans and media gathered outside Nikola Tesla International Airport in Belgrade, Serbia, on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, hoping to see Novak Djokovic upon his return from Australia.

By Marc Santora

Novak Djokovic, undone in his quest for a 10th Australian Open tennis championship by his decision to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, returned Monday to the warm embrace of his home nation of Serbia even as his future in the sport was shrouded in uncertainty.

He landed in Belgrade a day after being deported from Australia following a decision by the Australian government to revoke his visa out of concern that he might inspire anti-vaccination sentiment.

As he slipped out a private exit at Nikola Tesla International Airport in Belgrade to avoid a crowd of waiting reporters, nearly two weeks of legal wrangling, political posturing and intense media focus came to a rather subdued end.

The few dozen supporters who made their way to the airport waved flags, chanted their support for Djokovic and complained that their hero had been mistreated.

One of them, Simon Avramov, came with his wife and two small children.

“The world could not let someone from this small country be a champion,” he said.

But if Djokovic chooses to remain unvaccinated, it will not just be Australia where he might have trouble playing. His quest to win a record 21st Grand Slam title could be in jeopardy, as other nations also have rules on allowing in travelers who are unvaccinated.

The swirling drama in Australia — which transcended the world of sport as it became part of a broader debate about civil liberties and collective responsibility — might be only the first chapter in the tennis star’s saga.

The French Open is the next major tournament on the calendar, due to start in May, and France’s sports ministry said Monday it would not grant exemptions to its latest rules on vaccine passes, which it noted applied to professional players as well as spectators.

But a tournament representative also said the situation might change before the event was held.

In Australia, where Djokovic has been the dominant force for the past decade, he may not be allowed back for three years.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told an Australian radio station on Monday that Djokovic might be allowed to enter sooner under the “right circumstances.”

The minister for home affairs, Karen Andrews, said she had not ruled out an exemption.

“Any application will be reviewed on its merits,” she said.

Djokovic had presented evidence when he first landed in Australia that he was exempt from the nation’s vaccination mandate because he had been previously infected with the virus.

As soon as he landed, however, his visa was challenged by border agents and then revoked by the government. Djokovic appealed that decision, and a court ruled in his favor.

But just four days later, the Australian government revoked his visa again. This time, the government did not challenge Djokovic’s visa on technical grounds.

Instead, it argued that his decision to remain unvaccinated was in itself a danger since it might inspire others to resist inoculation.

On Sunday, the court found in the government’s favor, and within hours Djokovic had left the country, traveling first to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and then onto Belgrade.

While he was in midflight, the highest skyscraper in downtown Belgrade was illuminated in his honor.

“Nole, you are the pride of Serbia,” it said, using the affectionate nickname for the tennis star.

In Serbia, where vaccine skepticism runs deep, even those who do not agree with his decision to remain unvaccinated say he has been treated badly.

Djokovic offered no public comment upon returning home. In a statement after the court ruling, he said he was uncomfortable with all the public attention on him and wanted the focus to return to tennis.

As he landed in Belgrade, the tournament in Melbourne was just getting underway. Without its reigning champion.

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