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Novak Djokovic lands in Serbia as crowd chants support over COVID vaccine row

·Breaking News Editor, Yahoo News UK
·4-min read
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Novak Djokovic has landed in Serbia after being deported from Australia after failing to overturn the decision to cancel his visa over his lack of COVID-19 vaccination.

The current world number one landed in Belgrade shortly after 12pm local time.

People gathered outside the airport chanting his name and waving Serbian flags as they waited for him to leave the airport.

"You are our champion, Novak!" some shouted.

Djokovic landed in Australia on 5 January, and despite believing he had clearance to enter the country, was held by border authorities.

Since then, he won an appeal to remain in the country and compete, but immigration minister Alex Hawke re-cancelled Djokovic’s visa on Friday using personal powers.

Read more: Rafael Nadal irked by fiasco as he admits ‘I’m a little bit tired of the situation’

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport, after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Belgrade, Serbia January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic arrives at Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open. (Reuters)
A man takes a selfie with Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic as he arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport, after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Belgrade, Serbia  January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
Novak Djokovic stops for a selfie at Nikola Tesla Airport on his return to Serbia. (Reuters)

The decision means the nine-time Australian Open champion will not defend his title in Melbourne, which started a little more than 12 hours after he left the country.

In a statement following the court's decision, Djokovic said he was "extremely disappointed with the ruling" and he would be "taking some time to rest and to recuperate".

He added: "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 tournament I love."

Read more: Novak Djokovic - Timeline of tennis star’s visa saga in Australia

People holds Serbian national flags as they pose while waiting outside the VIP exit of Belgrade's international airport on January 17, 2022, for Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic's arrival after his deportation from Australia over his coronavirus vaccination status. - The unvaccinated nine-time Australian Open champion Djokovic flew out of Melbourne after his last-gasp court bid to stay in the country failed. The visa saga cast a dark shadow over the opening Grand Slam of the year and few players were willing to give him public backing as the controversy dragged out. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP) (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)
Fans gather outside the VIP exit of Belgrade's international airport as Novak Djokovic lands. (Getty)

Hawke’s decision was unexpectedly based not on the validity or otherwise of Djokovic’s exemption from COVID-19 vaccination, which was the reason for the initial cancellation, but on the notion his presence in the country could stoke anti-vaccination sentiment, making him a danger to public health, as well as civil unrest.

The decision means the player also been banned from Australia for three years, although this could be waived.

Djokovic’s continued resistance to being vaccinated against COVID-19 is fast emerging as the biggest threat to his quest to firmly establish himself as the most successful male player of all time.

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport, after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Belgrade, Serbia January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
Djokovic has also been banned from Australia for three years, although this can be waived. (Reuters)
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport, after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Belgrade, Serbia January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport. (Reuters)

The French government announced over the weekend that athletes entering the country will require vaccine passports.

It throws into doubt the possibility of Djokovic winning his 21st Grand Slam, if he isn't vaccinated by the time the French Open begins in May.

Had he played in Melbourne, he would have been a big favourite to win, which would have moved him clear of his great rivals, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Djokovic has been an outspoken critic of vaccines since the beginning of the pandemic, and said in April 2020 that he is “opposed to vaccination” and “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel”.

In June he organised an event as sport across the rest of the globe ground to a halt, and was seen partying with other players without wearing a mask.

Supporters of Serbia's Novak Djokovic protest and sing with candles outside a quarantine facility where Djokovic is believed to be in, in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. Djokovic will stay in immigration detention in Australia after a court adjourned a legal challenge against his visa cancellation. (AP Photo/Hamish Blair)
Supporters of Serbia's Novak Djokovic protest and sing with candles outside the quarantine facility were he was sent. (AP)

But part way through, it had to be cancelled after Djokovic himself tested positive for COVID-19, and he issued an apology for organising the event.

Before departing for Australia on 4 January, Djokovic tweeted: “Today I’m heading Down Under with exemption permission. Let’s go 2022."

But it sparked fury from locals in Melbourne, who have been under strict rules and have been subject to six different lockdowns.

After arriving into Australia on 5 January, Djokovic was held in the airport overnight, his visa was cancelled and he was transferred to the Park Hotel in Carlton, a state-run immigration facility that is also used to house asylum seekers.

Djokovic's furious parents claimed their son was being kept inside a dirty "prison" which was riddled with bugs, as tensions between the Australian and Serbian governments rose.

On 10 January Djokovic was give some hope that he would be able to play after a judge quashed the decision to bar him from entering and ordered him to be released immediately.

But two days later, the 34-year-old admitted breaking isolation rules to attend an interview on 18 December – despite having tested positive for COVID the day before.

There were also questions raised about his immigration statement form, which said he had not travelled for two weeks prior before. Djokovic said his agent had made a "human error" when filling out the form.

But ultimately it was decided on 14 January that Djokovic was to have his visa cancelled, after Hawke used his discretionary powers to reimpose the penalty.

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