BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s president called on Novak Djokovic to return to his native country on Sunday hours after the top-ranked tennis player lost his court battle to play at the Australian Open and was deported.
Djokovic’s final destination was not immediately clear. He left Australia after saying he was “disappointed” with losing his appeal against deportation and adding that he needs “some time to rest and to recuperate” after the 11-day saga.
A masked Djokovic was photographed in an Melbourne airport lounge with two government officials in black uniforms. He left on an Emirates flight to Dubai, the same transit point he used when he flew to Australia on Jan. 6 after departing from Marbella, Spain.
Djokovic released a statement shortly after three Australian Federal Court judges unanimously upheld a decision made on Friday by the country’s immigration minister to cancel the 34-year-old Serb’s visa on public interest grounds because he is not vaccinated for COVID-19.
Djokovic’s visa was initially canceled on Jan. 6 by a border official who decided he didn’t qualify for a medical exemption from Australia’s rules for unvaccinated visitors. Djokovic was initially exempted from the tournament’s vaccine rules because he had been infected with the virus within the previous six months.
In addition to his native Serbia, where he has an almost iconic status and overwhelming support, Djokovic could go to Marbella or Monaco where he has residences and where he has spent most of his time away from tennis.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused Australian authorities of “harassing” Djokovic and called the court ruling “a farce.”
He said he spoke to Djokovic on Sunday.
“We can’t wait to see him in Serbia, to return to his country, to come where he is always welcome,” Vucic said.
“They think they humiliated Djokovic with this, the best player in the world, by the ten-day harassment, they humiliated themselves and Djokovic can return to his country with his head high up and look everyone in the eye.”
He did not say whether Djokovic confirmed he would go to Serbia after his deportation.
Djokovic’s Belgrade-based family issued a statement Sunday, indicating Djokovic could be heading to Serbia.
“We will be here to share the blows he received, to help him regain his energy, his faith in this sport, above all in fair play, which was completely absent.”
Serbian populist politicians, seizing on a potential opportunity to score popularity points ahead of Serbia’s elections in April, as well as the majority of the public were dismayed by Djokovic’s “ordeal” in Australia.
“It is very sad that one of the greatest, world, planetary sportsmen has to experience something like that,” said Aleksandra Vukojevic, a Belgrade resident.
Other politicians were in tune with the overall reaction.
“I think the decision is scandalous,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said. “I’m disappointed and I think it showed how the rule of law functions in some other countries, that is how the rule of law does not function. It is incredible to me how we have two totally opposed court decisions within just a few days.
“As the head of the government of the Republic of Serbia I am not happy, but we should not get too emotional,” Brnabic said. “In any case, I can’t wait to see Novak Djokovic in our country, in Serbia, so we can go through this together and so we can offer support in these difficult moments.”
Djokovic has won nine Australian Open titles, including three in a row, and a total of 20 Grand Slam singles trophies, tied with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis.
The Serbian tennis association expressed “huge disappointment” and described the decision to deport Djokovic as “political.”
“This decision has only deprived the world from watching Novak’s fight for the tenth Australian Open and 21st Grand Slam title,” it said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed.
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