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16 Jan, 2022 12:49

Djokovic takes flight as leaders & players attack ‘political agenda’

The thwarted tennis superstar has won support and been pictured heading through a Melbourne airport
Djokovic takes flight as leaders & players attack ‘political agenda’

Novak Djokovic has left Australia after having his visa canceled over his Covid vaccination status – and tennis leaders and some of his fellow stars have given their reaction to the Australian Open champion's ordeal.

Hours after a court upheld the decision by Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke to oust Djokovic from the country, the sporting icon was pictured walking through Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport while wearing a mask.

Further photos purportedly showed border force officials escorting the world's top male tennis player in a lounge ahead of his enforced return to Europe via Dubai.

The snaps provided a stark contrast to the self-portrait Djokovic supplied on social media on January 4, when the 34-year-old pictured himself looking happy with his luggage as he announced that he would be heading to the tournament with a medical exemption.

That swiftly turned sour when officials interrogated Djokovic after he arrived in Australia and informed him that he would not be allowed to stay in the country despite his belief that he could do so without being vaccinated as a result of testing positive for Covid in December 2021.

Djokovic was detained in a hotel and briefly freed by a judge, only for Hawke to cancel the world number one's visa for a second time in a decision that was upheld by a court on Sunday.

Tennis governing body the ATP described the saga and ruling as "deeply regrettable".

"Ultimately, decisions of legal authorities regarding matters of public health must be respected," bosses said in a statement after learning that Djokovic will not appear at the first Grand Slam event of 2022.

"More time is required to take stock of the facts and to take the learnings from this situation.

"Irrespective of how this point has been reached, Novak is one of our sport’s greatest champions and his absence from the Australian Open is 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. We wish him well and look forward to seeing him back on court soon."

The Tennis Association of Serbia was more forthright. "The farce is over," it said in its own statement, via Blic.

"The Tennis Association of Serbia expresses its great disappointment with this decision of the Australian court. This time, politics has won over sport.

"Nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic has been denied the right to play in the first Grand Slam competition of the season and try to lift the trophy for the tenth time and win the 21st Grand Slam title on the sports field, where he has won all his victories.

"The best tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, validly fulfilled all the prescribed requirements and rules of the organizers of the Australian Open and the host country for participation in the tournament, which was confirmed by the decision of the court of the same country.

"However, due to political pressures, his visa was denied on the grounds of 'public interest'.

"Will the athletes, even when they validly fulfill all the prescribed requirements for entering the countries that organize competitions and tournaments, be able to be removed from the list of participants, detained as criminals and expelled by the political decision of the powerful?

"Sport has always been the cleanest segment of society, especially tennis as a gentleman's sport, in which compliance with regulations has always been highly valued.

"In those conditions, our champion Novak became the world number one, without an equal in history.

"The Tennis Association of Serbia fully supports Novak Djokovic as the best ambassador of our country.

"We believe and hope that even after this injustice done not only to one historically successful athlete, but also to an exceptional person. Novak, as usual, will be [back] stronger and better."

The association questioned the "message" Australia had sent ahead of its hosting of the Olympic Games in Brisbane in 2032.

"The interference of politics in sports has opened many burning questions," it added, suggesting that the "sacred Olympic rule" of impartiality had not been  applied to Djokovic.

"The lack of reactions during the whole case by the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), ITF (World Tennis Federation), as well as the world's leading sports institutions, raises the question of whether this will henceforth be a pattern of behavior of organizers of major sporting events."

Canadian star Vasek Pospisil backed Djokovic's claim that he had been granted a medical exemption which meant he could feature at the tournament without receiving a Covid vaccine because he had tested positive for the virus in December 2021.

"Novak would never have gone to Australia if he had not been given an exemption to enter the country by the government, which he did receive, hence [the] initial ruling [to free him]," said Pospisil.

"He would have skipped the Australian Open and been home with his family and no-one would be talking about this mess.

"There was a political agenda at play here with the [Australian federal] elections coming up which couldn’t be more obvious.

"This is not his fault. He did not force his way into the country and did not 'make his own rules'; he was ready to stay home."

Prime minister Scott Morrison's government, which has enforced some of the strictest lockdown and public health guidelines around Covid in the world, deemed Djokovic a public health risk because of his vaccine status.

The administration has been accused of using the planet's best-known tennis player as a pawn in a power play with the dual aim of pushing more people to become vaccinated.

World number 25 Reilly Opelka hit back at a critic who said Djokovic could have avoided the saga by taking vaccine shots, which they argued was "not that hard".

"What else wasn’t that hard for Novak was staying on the practice court for an extra hour back in 2008 at the Cincinnati Masters to sign every single kid's ball," replied Opelka, sarcastically telling another respondent that he should "probably be canceled" for "offending" them with his views on Djokovic. "He has done plenty of great things for the sport too, you know."

Australian provocateur Nick Kyrgios, who criticized Djokovic for his decision to hold a tournament which appeared to contradict public health guidelines at the height of the pandemic, showed his support for his one-time adversary again.

Reigning Australian Open women's champion Naomi Osaka accepted that giving her opinion on the debacle would risk creating "more controversy".

"He's such a great player and it's kind of sad that some people might remember him this way," the Japanese megastar was quoted as saying by Sportklub.

"It's not up to tennis players – it's up to the Australian government, how they are deciding to handle it.

"I know what it's like to kind of be in his situation... to just see comments from other players. It's not the greatest thing."

Russian veteran Ekaterina Bychkova also appeared to produce a withering response to the court ruling, saying that "a miracle did not happen."

"The system [affects] everyone, always and everywhere," Bychkova said on social media. "They showed us a great example in Australia."

Former Billie Jean King Cup winner Alize Cornet suggested that Djokovic had been let down by his fellow players.

"I know too little to judge the situation," acknowledged the French star, telling Djokovic to "be strong".

"What I know is that Novak is always the first one to stand for the players. But none of us stood for him. And people: don't call me anti-vaxx, please."

The Australian Open will now take place without Djokovic, who had been the top seed, from January 17-30 2022.