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Djokovic, deported from Australia, arrives home in Serbia as Australian Open begins

Novak Djokovic arrived in his home country of Serbia Monday after his deportation from Australia over its required COVID-19 vaccination ended the world's top-ranked men's tennis player's hopes of defending his Australian Open title.

An Emirates plane carrying him from Australia landed in Dubai early Monday, and Djokovic was later seen on board a plane that landed in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

His lawyers had argued in an Australian court on Sunday that he should be allowed to stay in the country and compete in the tournament under a medical exemption due to a coronavirus infection last month.

APTOPIX Australian Open Djokovic
Novak Djokovic prepares to take his seat on a plane to Belgrade, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on January 17, 2022. Djokovic was deported from Australia on Sunday after losing a bid to stay in the country to defend his Australian Open title despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19. Darko Bandic / AP

Djokovic has won nine Australian Open titles, including three in a row, and a total of 20 Grand Slam singles trophies, tied with rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most in the history of men's tennis. Federer isn't playing while recovering from right knee surgery, and Nadal is the only former Australian Open men's champion in the tournament that began Monday.

Nadal began his bid to break the record with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 opening round win over American Marcos Giron Monday.

"Growing up, I've looked up to him," said Giron. "He's one the absolute legends of the game."

Djokovic has overwhelming support in his native Serbia, where his closest family lives. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has accused the Australian government of "harassing" the top-ranked tennis star and urged him to return home, where he would be welcomed.

Djokovic had tested positive with coronavirus in Belgrade on Dec. 16, which he used as an argument to enter Australia, but his visa was initially canceled on Jan. 6 by a border official who decided he didn't qualify for a medical exemption from Australia's rules for unvaccinated visitors.

Australian Open
A fan gestures in front of a picture of Novak Djokovic on the first day of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 17, 2022. JAMES GOURLEY / REUTERS

He won an appeal to stay for the tournament, but Australia's immigration minister later revoked his visa. Three Federal Court judges decided unanimously Sunday to affirm the immigration minister's right to cancel Djokovic's visa.

Vaccination amid the pandemic is a requirement for anyone at the Australian Open, whether players, their coaches or anyone at the tournament site. More than 95% of all Top 100 men and women in their tours' respective rankings are vaccinated. At least two men - American Tennys Sandgren and Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert - skipped the first major tournament of the year due to the vaccine requirement.

Djokovic's attempt to get the medical exemption for not being vaccinated sparked anger in Australia, where strict lockdowns in cities and curbs on international travel have been employed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus since the pandemic began.

Djokovic tested positive in Belgrade on Dec. 16, but received the result late Dec. 17, he said, and scrapped all his commitments except a long-standing interview with L'Equipe newspaper the following day. He later described this "an error" of judgment.

Asked if Djokovic would face any penalties for flouting his isolation while being infected when he returns to Serbia, Serbian officials said he wouldn't, because the country isn't in a state of emergency.

Djokovic has almost an iconic status in Serbia, whose President Aleksandar Vucic said the court hearing in Australia was "a farce with a lot of lies."

"They think that they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, and they actually humiliated themselves. If you said that the one who was not vaccinated has no right to enter, Novak would not come or would be vaccinated," Vucic told reporters.

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