The world number one tennis player left Australia after losing his visa appeal, ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott reports
Novak Djokovic was still on his way home from Australia when another obstacle was put in his path in the form of a tightening of regulations in France towards the unvaccinated.
An Emirates plane carrying Djokovic from Australia touched down in Dubai early on Monday, and he was later seen on board a plane due to land in the Serbian capital of Belgrade at 12:10 CET (11:10am GMT).
He is already unlikely to play the big ATP tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami in March unless he changes his stance because of the USA’s tight restrictions, and on Sunday French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu performed an about-turn by saying sportspeople will need to be vaccinated to compete in the country.
Maracineau last week defended the idea of bubbles for unvaccinated athletes but on Sunday reversed that position after the passing of stricter measures in the French parliament, putting Djokovic’s defence of his French Open title in danger.
There appears no prospect of the British government following suit but it is not inconceivable that Wimbledon could be the only grand slam tournament where Djokovic competes in 2022.
His visa was cancelled on the grounds that Djokovic’s presence in Australia may be a risk to the health and “good order” of the Australian public and “may be counterproductive to efforts at vaccination by others in Australia.”
The tennis star has overwhelming support in his native Serbia, and President Aleksandar Vucic said the court hearing in Australia was “a farce with a lot of lies.”
“They think that they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, and they actually humiliated themselves. If you said that the one who was not vaccinated has no right to enter, Novak would not come or would be vaccinated,” Vucic told reporters.
Djokovic left Australia on Sunday after he lost his last-ditch bid to avoid deportation following days of back and forth in the courts in a widely-publicised ordeal.
A masked Djokovic was photographed in Melbourne airport accompanied by Australian Border Force officials, before boarding an Emirates flight to Dubai that left at 10.30pm.
After a tense few hours, three Federal Court judges unanimously upheld a decision made on Friday by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to cancel the 34-year-old Serb’s visa on public interest grounds, bringing the saga that has gripped the world's attention closer to an end.
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Djokovic, who is not vaccinated against Covid-19, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling but respected it and did not take the legal fight further. A deportation order usually also includes a three-year ban on returning to Australia - although this can be waived.
In a statement Djokovic said he would be taking some "time to rest and to recuperate, before making any further comments beyond this".
“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. I would like to wish the players, tournament officials, staff, volunteers and fans all the best for the tournament," he said.
“Finally, I would like to thank my family, friends, team, supporters, fans and my fellow Serbians for your continued support. You have all been a great source of strength to me.”
Djokovic's family also released a statement following the news, saying they were "disappointed" by the news.
"Despite the scandalous behavior towards Novak, we believed that the sport would win," they said.
"These are difficult times, especially for Novak, but what we all have to do, above all us, as his family, is to support him more than ever before. We will be there 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 here.
"We are proud of him and the strength he showed and the fight he led with dignity.
"We believe that he will come out of this situation stronger and that time will show what he has indisputably always confirmed so far, and that is that he is a great champion and a man."
Mr Hawke re-cancelled Djokovic’s visa on Friday using personal powers after the world number one had won an appeal against the initial decision to bar him from the country when he arrived on January 6 at Melbourne's airport.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he welcomed the decision to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe.
“Strong borders are fundamental to the Australian way of life, as is the rule of law," he said.
"Our government has always understood this and has been prepared to take the decisions and actions necessary to protect the integrity of our borders."
The saga leaves many questions for Tennis Australia, which pushed for exemptions to be available for players in Djokovic’s position despite widespread public opposition.
In a brief statement the organisation said: “Tennis Australia respects the decision of the Federal Court. We look forward to a competitive and exciting Australian Open 2022 and wish all players the best of luck.”
The ATP was stronger, describing what has played out over the last week and a half as a “deeply regrettable series of events” and said Djokovic’s absence was “a loss for the game”.
“We know how turbulent the recent days have been for Novak and how much he wanted to defend his title in Melbourne,” said the governing body.
“We wish him well and look forward to seeing him back on court soon. ATP continues to strongly recommend vaccination to all players.”