BELGRADE, Jan 17 — Tennis superstar Novak Djokovic headed home today after he was deported from Australia over his coronavirus vaccine status while the Australian Open started without him.

The unvaccinated men’s world number one flew out of Melbourne yesterday after his last-gasp court bid to stay in Australia failed, and the Serb briefly had a stopover in Dubai.

Two employees at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport told AFP that Djokovic was set to arrive around midday (1100 GMT) today on a flight from Dubai.

There was no official confirmation however that the reigning Australian Open champion was headed to the Serbian capital where part of his family is based.

The dramatic deportation followed a protracted, high-stakes legal battle between 34-year-old Djokovic and the Australian authorities that polarised opinion and tarnished reputations on both sides.

Yesterday night, the message “Nole you are the pride of Serbia” flashed from an LED-panel sign on a building along the Sava River in downtown Belgrade, using the popular nickname for the player in his home country.

Djokovic is likely to be received as a hero in Serbia, with the fiasco in Melbourne appearing to only fuel his standing at home as a fighter who dared to challenge the establishment.

Ahead of his deportation from Australia, Djokovic said he was “extremely disappointed” after a Federal Court unanimously upheld the cancellation of his visa on public order grounds.

He now faces a possible three-year ban from Australia, where he was won nine of his 20 Grand Slam titles — a tally that equals the all-time record alongside Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is wrestling with record coronavirus numbers, said “there was a very clear message sent”.

But he hinted that Djokovic could be allowed to return within three years “in the right circumstances”.

“It (the ban) does go over a three-year period, but there is the opportunity for them to return in the right circumstances and that would be considered at the time,” Morrison said in a radio interview.

Legal drama

The humbled Djokovic boarded an Emirates flight from Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport and arrived in Dubai before dawn today, accompanied by a retinue of coaches and aides. He was seen in the transit section of the airport.

Twice in the last 11 days Australia’s government had ripped up Djokovic’s visa and placed him in immigration detention — saying his presence could fuel anti-vaccine sentiment amid a wave of cases of the Omicron variant.

The Serbian star fought the decision in court, winning one round but losing yesterday’s decider in Australia’s Federal Court, James Allsop, ending a week of legal drama.

“I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love,” Djokovic said, acknowledging the game was up.

The controversy looks set to rumble on, with Djokovic’s image seriously damaged and Australia feeding a growing reputation for hostility towards visitors.

But Morrison, who faces a tough reelection battle this year, is unlikely to suffer much of a public backlash over the saga, even among those with misgivings about his hardline immigration policies.

Many Australians — who have suffered prolonged lockdowns and border restrictions that effectively kept families and loved ones apart — believe Djokovic attempted to dodge vaccine entry requirements, and are happy to see him go.

“I think they did the right thing asking him to leave. If he was still here it would be all Djokovic. But the tournament is about so much more than him,” one tennis fan, Simon Overton, told AFP as the Australian Open got under way in Melbourne Park.

But others, including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, condemned the Australian decision to deport Djokovic.

“They think that they have by this, this mistreatment of 10 days, humiliated Djokovic, but they have humiliated themselves,” Vucic said.

‘A mess’

Back in Australia, Rafael Nadal — who in Djokovic’s absence from the Open could become the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles — said “justice had spoken” but that the Serb was not the only one to blame for the “mess” that overshadowed the Australian Open.

“Almost one week ago when he won in the first instance... he was able to get back his visa and was practising. I said the justice have spoke,” Nadal said after cruising into the tournament’s second round.

“Yesterday the justice said another thing. I will never be against what the justice says.”

Djokovic’s chances of playing in the next Grand Slam tournament, the French Open, were thrown into doubt today when government sources told AFP that any athlete who wished to compete in France will have to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

The move appears to contradict what Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu said last week when she stated that certain events like the French Open had a special exemption from coronavirus rules. — Reuters