Novak Djokovic—poster child for the unvaccinated—landed in his native Serbia Monday morning to a hero’s welcome with fans gathered at the airport waving the national flag and cheering: “You are our champion, Novak! We love you, Nole!” as the world number one tennis player touched down after being deported from Australia over his anti-vax stance. “I think he entered history as a hero, as a man and as a fighter against this evil which is called corona-circus,” Marko Strugalovic, 60, told Reuters at Belgrade airport. “Nole, you are a king, you are an emperor, Nole is the greatest legend walking the earth, he is a living saint.”
On the eve of the Australian Open, for which top-seeded star should have been preparing to defend his ninth Australian Open title, he was instead on a red-eye flight from Melbourne to Dubai en route to Belgrade with a whole lot of sports journalists who hastily booked tickets to get close to him.
In Serbia, the president lit up the Belgrade Tower with the national colors and his nickname “Nole.” An hour before he touched down, France’s Sports Authority announced a vaccine mandate for all foreign athletes, meaning his hopes to compete in the French Open may now hinge on whether or not he agrees to finally get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The saga of Djokovic’s now well-known vaccine status scandal has delighted anti-vaxxers, frustrated his peers in the tennis world, and largely put Australia in a bad light for its back and forth, first granting permission for the Serbian to enter the country and then revoking his visa at the border.
Credit: Marko Djurica/Reuters
Djokovic, who is vocally anti-vaccine, was given an exemption to skirt Australia’s vaccine mandate to enter the country for the tournament on the grounds that he had tested positive for COVID Dec. 16. Never mind the numerous mask-less photos and interviews he gave in the days after his diagnosis, he apparently felt just fine despite being unvaccinated.
That exemption was pulled at the border when he entered Jan. 6 over an error in his paperwork (backed by recent photos of him in Spain despite saying he had not traveled in the days before his flight), only to be reinstated by a judge four days later.
The visa was again pulled by the country’s health minister Alex Hawke, who said he feared the Serbian was a danger to the public, not because of potential contagion but that he might inspire others to shun the vaccine. On Sunday, a three-judge panel ruled he had no grounds for appealing Hawke’s move, and by 10:30 p.m. local time he was on an Emirates flight to Dubai.
Whether Djokovic will get to play in the Roland Garros or French Open tournaments remains to be seen after the French authorities announced a vaccine mandate. “This will apply to everyone who is a spectator or a professional sportsperson. And this until further notice,” a spokesman for the French Health Ministry told Reuters. “Now, as far as Roland Garros is concerned, it’s in May. The situation may change between now and then and we hope that it will be more favourable. So we’ll see, but clearly there’s no exemption.”