By Darko Bandik and Dusan Stojanovic
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Novak Djokovic returned home on Monday after failing to defend his Australian Open title, only to face a new situation: he could also be barred from the French Open this year if he Still not vaccinated against COVID-19. ,
1-ranked player touched down in his native Serbia, closing at least the first chapter in a dizzying drama that has polarized debate over the world of elite sports, Australia’s pandemic politics and coronavirus shots There is echo.
A handful of fans greeted him at Belgrade’s airport by waving the Serbian flag. Djokovic has an almost coveted status in Serbia, and many there felt he was treated poorly by Australia.
But his troubles may not be over yet: he could be banned from this year’s French Open, under a new law intended to exclude non-vaccination from stadiums and other public places. A lot could change between now and the start of the Grand Slam tournament in late May, but it woke spectators that the recent saga in Australia would be not only a blip, but an ongoing challenge for the athlete, who is increasingly being challenged as being kept. Hero of the anti-vaccine movement.
A member of the French parliament, Christophe Castaner, said the new law would apply to everyone who wanted to play at the French Open – a reversal of earlier plans to create a “bubble” around the tournament.
“To do your job, to come for fun or fun, to practice a sport, it will be necessary to introduce a vaccine. This will be valid for people who live in France, but also for foreigners who come to our country for a holiday or for a major sporting event,” Sports Minister Roxana Maracinenu told BFM television on Monday.
But some details of the law are still being hashed – including how it will treat people who have recently recovered from COVID-19, as Djokovic says they have. The question is how recent the infection has to be to qualify for exemption from vaccination rules.
Djokovic is also the defending champion at Wimbledon, starting in late June. But so far, England has allowed exemptions from various coronavirus rules for incoming athletes if they stay at their residences during competition or training. The US Tennis Association, which runs the US Open, has said it will follow government regulations on vaccination status.
It is also unclear when Djokovic may return to Australia. Returning to the country from exile can result in a three-year ban, although this may be waived depending on the circumstances.
For now, there is a warm welcome to Djokovic, who is heavily supported in his native Serbia, where his closest family lives. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused the Australian government of “harassing” the top-ranked tennis star and urged him to return home.
“God bless you Novak,” read one of the banners put up by fans at the airport as he was whispered through passport control and customs and then taken to his apartment in Belgrade by his brother Jordje .
Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, said her son would remain in Belgrade in the coming days and would not make a statement to the media, the official Tanjug news agency reported.
Djokovic’s Australian saga began when he was given an exemption from strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and the tournament’s organizer to play at the Australian Open based on documents that showed he had recently contracted COVID-19. Was. They received a visa to enter the country through an automated process. But on arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and went on to deport him.
Early news that the star was granted an exemption sparked anger in Australia, where strict lockdowns in cities and curbs on international travel have been in place since the pandemic began to try to control the spread of the coronavirus.
More than 95% of all top 100 male and female tennis players in their respective rankings of tours have been vaccinated. At least two other men – American Tennis Sandgren and Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert – have skipped the Australian Open due to vaccine requirements.
In the end, Australian authorities revoked Djokovic’s visa, saying his presence could spark anti-vaccination sentiment and that it was necessary to oust Australians to keep Australians safe. He was deported on Sunday, a day before the start of the tournament in Melbourne.
Djokovic has won nine titles there before. He had hoped to clinch his 21st Grand Slam singles trophy this year, breaking the record he shared with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most matches in the history of men’s tennis. Federer is not playing while recovering from injury, but Nadal is competing.
As the legal battle played out in Australia, Djokovic admitted he took part in an interview with L’Equipe newspaper reporters in Belgrade in December after testing positive for the coronavirus. He later described it as “an error” of judgment.
Asked whether Djokovic would face any punishment for violating his isolation while being infected upon his return to Serbia, Serbian officials said he would not do so because the country is not under a state of emergency.
Djokovic is a national hero in Serbia, whose president called the court hearings in Australia “a farce with a lot of lies”.
“Novak, welcome home, you know we all support you here,” said Belgrade resident Snezana Yankovic. “They can take away your visa, but they can’t take away your Serbian pride.”
Associated Press writers Jovana Geec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Lori Hinant in Paris contributed to this report.