Novak Djokovic returned home Monday after being denied the opportunity to defend his Australian Open title, only to find himself in a new predicament: he may be barred from competing in the French Open this year as well if he has not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
A plane carrying the No. 1 ranked player landed in his home country of Serbia, bringing to a close at least the first chapter in a dizzying drama that has resonance in the world of elite sports, Australia’s pandemic politics, and the polarized debate over the coronavirus shots.
At Belgrade’s airport, he was greeted by a small crowd waving the Serbian flag. Djokovic is almost iconic in Serbia, and many people there felt he was mistreated by Australia.
However, his problems may not be over: he may be barred from competing in the French Open this year due to a new law that prohibits the unvaccinated from entering stadiums and other public places.
Much could change between now and the start of the Grand Slam tournament in late May, but the recent saga in Australia raised the possibility that the recent saga would be more than a blip, but an ongoing challenge for the athlete, who is increasingly being hailed as a hero by the anti-vaccine movement.
According to Christophe Castaner, a member of the French Parliament, the new law will apply to anyone who wants to play in the French Open, reversing earlier plans to create a “bubble” around the tournament.
“To do your job, to come for pleasure or leisure, to practice a sport, it will be necessary to present a vaccine. This will be valid for people who live in France but also for foreigners who come to our country for vacation or for a major sports competition,” Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu told BFM television Monday.
However, some details of the law are still being worked out, such as how it will treat people who have recently recovered from COVID-19, as Djokovic claims. The question is how recent the infection must be in order to qualify for a vaccination exemption.
Djokovic is also the defending Wimbledon champion, which starts in late June. However, so far, England has granted visiting athletes exemptions from various coronavirus regulations if they stay at their accommodation when not competing or training.
The United States Tennis Association, which organizes the U.S. Open, has stated that it will adhere to government regulations regarding vaccination status.
It’s also unclear when Novak Djokovic will return to Australia. Deportation can result in a three-year ban on re-entering the country, though this can be waived depending on the circumstances.
For the time being, Novak Djokovic will be greeted warmly in his home country of Serbia, where his closest family resides. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has accused Australia of “harassing” the world’s top tennis player and urged him to return home.
“God bless you Novak,” read one of the banners held by fans at the airport as he was whisked through passport control and customs and then driven to his apartment in Belgrade by his brother Djordje.
According to the official Tanjug news agency, Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, said her son will remain in Belgrade in the coming days and will not make media statements.
Djokovic’s Australian saga began when he was granted an exemption to strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and the tournament organizer in order to play in the Australian Open based on documents he supplied showing he had recently had COVID-19.
He received a visa to enter the country through an automated process. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him.