BELGRADE (AP) — Novak Djokovic could be banned from the French Open this year for not being vaccinated against COVID-19, a possibility that would complicate the tennis star’s big goals after being deported from Australia and unable to defend his title in the Australian Open.
A plane carrying the world number one landed in his native Serbia on Monday, closing at least the first chapter of a novel that has resonated with the world of elite sports, Australian pandemic politics and the polarized debate over vaccines against COVID-19.
Djokovic was expected to receive a mass shower from his compatriots, many of them convinced that he received poor treatment in Australia. But if anything, a small group waving the Serbian flag came to greet him at the airport in the capital, Belgrade.
But while that episode was closing, another began, between doubts about whether he could compete in the next Grand Slam on the calendar, the French Open.
The French authorities warned that a new legislation that would require being vaccinated to be able to enter sports venues would not contemplate exceptions.
Much could change before the start of Roland Garros, at the end of May. But the possibility is opened that what happened in Australia will be repeated with an athlete who does not want to be vaccinated and who has become a kind of hero for the anti-vaccine movement.
Djokovic argued before an Australian court that he should be allowed to stay in the country and compete in the season opener due to a medical exemption because he tested positive for coronavirus last month. He received an exemption from the tournament due to suffering from coronavirus in the last six months.
But upon arrival in the country, the Australian authorities declared that the waiver was invalid. They ended up appealing to the public interest and revoked his visa, warning that his presence could fuel anti-vaccine sentiment and expelling him from the country was necessary to safeguard the health of Australians.
While the tennis player was traveling to his native country, a French parliamentarian added another edge. Christophe Castaner pointed out that a new law that will exclude unvaccinated people from sports venues, restaurants and other public spaces will apply to anyone who wants to play at Roland Garros — a change of plans from the initial project of creating a “bubble” around to the contest.
France’s sports ministry said on Monday that when the law comes into effect, no exemptions will be given.
Djokovic has won nine Australian Open titles, including three in a row, and a total of 20 Grand Slam trophies. That leaves him tied with his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the most successful men’s tennis. Federer is recovering from injury and Nadal is the only former Australian Open champion to take part in the edition that starts Monday in Melbourne.
Djokovic has overwhelming support in Serbia, where his closest family lives. President Aleksandar Vucic has accused the Australian government of “harassing” the tennis player and urged Djokovic to return to where he was always welcome.
Djokovic’s attempt to receive an exemption for not being vaccinated has sparked outrage in Australia, where strict city lockdowns and travel restrictions have been imposed to control the spread of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
Djokovic tested positive in Belgrade on December 16, but received the result the following day, he said. He canceled all his commitments, except for an interview with the French newspaper L’Equipe the next day. He later acknowledged that this was “an error” in judgment.
When asked if Djokovic would face penalties for not complying with isolation after becoming infected when returning to Serbia, local authorities ruled out doing so since the country is not in a state of emergency.
“Novak, welcome home, you know we all support you here,” said Belgrade resident Snezana Jankovic. “Your visa may be taken away, but no one will take away your Serbian pride.”
Reporters Jovana Gec in Belgrade and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.