Serbia’s Leader Denounces Australia’s Treatment of Djokovic as ‘Orwellian’

BELGRADE, Serbia — President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia blasted the Australian government on Sunday for what he called the “harassment” of Novak Djokovic, deriding the legal process that led to the tennis star’s deportation one day before the start of the Australian Open as “Orwellian” and saying that the player would be welcomed home.

“I talked to Novak a while ago, and I encouraged him, and I told him that I can’t wait for him to come to Serbia and return to his country, and to be where he is always welcome,” Mr. Vucic said in a statement on the day that Mr. Djokovic left Australia after a legal dispute surrounding his coronavirus vaccination status.

“They think that they humiliated Djokovic with this 10-day harassment, and they actually humiliated themselves,” Mr. Vucic said.

In Serbia, where Mr. Djokovic is deeply revered and widely respected as one of his country’s greatest sports stars, even those who did not support his decision to remain unvaccinated said that he had been maligned and mistreated.

Dr. Predrag Kon, a member of Serbia’s pandemic response team who has been a lead voice in calling for people to get vaccinated as the rapidly spreading Omicron variant brings a new wave of infection, joined those expressing outrage.

A mural of Mr. Djokovic in Belgrade, Serbia, where he is revered as one of his country’s greatest sports stars.Credit…Marko Risovic for The New York Times

“I am shocked by the decision,” he wrote on Facebook. “This is by no means in the spirit of the International Health Regulations, which speak of the free movement of passengers, goods and services. I wish he never got into this situation.”

Vuk Jeremic, who was Serbia’s foreign minister from 2007 to 2012 before serving as president of the United Nations General Assembly, said that Mr. Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated should be seen in the context of the region.

“Unfortunately, such is the widespread opinion in most of southeast Europe, the underlying reasons being deep and to do with general distrust toward governments and institutions, after decades of terrible corruption and growing inequality,” Mr. Jeremic said.

But he said that in no way justified the events as they played out.

“The Australian government’s conduct toward him has been utterly disgraceful,” Mr. Jeremic said in an email sent as Mr. Djokovic’s legal team was making its arguments in court.

A panel of three federal judges went on to rule that Australia’s immigration minister was within his rights to cancel the unvaccinated tennis star’s visa on the basis that the player could pose a risk to public health and order.

Mr. Jeremic called the Australian government’s mantra in the case — “rules are rules” — hypocrisy.

“All the other tournament participants who got the medical exemption from the same medical panel got the same visa and entered Australia without hindrance,” Mr. Jeremic said. “Novak is a victim of brinkmanship by shameless populists, exclusively driven by snap opinion polls.”

Fans of Mr. Djokovic outside the Federal Court in Melbourne on Sunday after the ruling. Credit…Alana Holmberg for The New York Times

After revoking Mr. Djokovic’s visa a second time, all the Australian government had to do to win its legal case this weekend was show that the tennis star “may” cause harm if allowed to stay in the country despite being unvaccinated against the coronavirus.

But in Serbia, the decision to kick Mr. Djokovic out of Australia was greeted with outrage. On Sunday, the headline of a leading tabloid, Kurir, captured the mood: “Shame on Australia! The biggest shame in the history of sports happened in Melbourne.”

The Serbian Tennis Federation said it was a victory of politics over sports.

Mr. Djokovic, in an emailed statement, said that he was “extremely disappointed” but that he respected the ruling. He left Australia on a flight to Dubai a few hours after releasing the statement, which his team said would be his last comments on the matter until the Australian Open was over.

While Mr. Djokovic said he was uncomfortable with all of the attention and hoped the focus could return to tennis, there was agreement in Serbia that the matter had been handled poorly. Many believe that Mr. Djokovic would not have been treated the same way if he had come from a richer country.

The tennis player’s father, Srdjan Djokovic — who is not known for understatement and who compared his son to Jesus Christ during the ordeal — broke several days of silence to repost an image on Instagram on Sunday morning.

Written over pictures of his son winning trophies were the words: “The attempt to assassinate the best athlete in the world has ended, 50 bullets in Novak’s chest.”

The parents and brother of Mr. Djokovic spoke to the news media in Belgrade this past week. The tennis player’s father, Srdjan Djokovic, has compared his son to Jesus Christ because of the imbroglio.Credit…Zorana Jevtic/Reuters

The imbroglio could have been avoided, Mr. Vucic said, if Australia had made it clear that the player would have to be vaccinated to enter the country and play.

The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia

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A vaccine exemption question. Novak Djokovic was refused entry to Australia over questions about a Covid vaccine exemption. After he challenged the ruling in court, a judge allowed him to enter. Authorities then revoked his visa again, and he lost his final bid to stay when a three-judge panel upheld the decision.

How it started. The standoff began when Djokovic received an exemption that would allow him to defend his Australian Open title. Upon arrival, federal officials said he did not meet the requirements for entry because he was unvaccinated, and canceled his visa.

How it ended. For more than a week, the world gawked at a conflict centered on the controversial tennis star, filled with legal minutiae and dramatic ups and downs. Ultimately, Djokovic lost to a government with powerful laws that was determined to make an example out of him.

The bigger picture. Amid a difficult time in Australia’s fight against Covid, the standoff highlighted the growing public outcry against high-profile vaccine skeptics like Djokovic when they want to play by different rules than everyone else.

What happens next. It is unclear what will happen at the next major tournaments on the men’s tour, but the standoff in Australia presages some of the headwinds Djokovic could face if he attempts to travel the world without being vaccinated for Covid-19.

The Serbian leader accused the lawyers representing Australia’s government of not telling the truth. In particular, he took issue with the way Serbia’s coronavirus vaccination rates were presented in court.

“They say that less than 50 percent of vaccinated citizens are in Serbia, and officially 58 percent,” he said.

Mr. Vucic was citing figures for adults, but the vaccination rate for the country’s total population is about 50 percent, according to Our World in Data. While that rate is higher than in some other Central and Eastern European nations, it is far lower than in much of Western Europe.

It is also well below the 91.6 percent of the population over age 16 in Australia who are fully vaccinated, a figure cited by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke — and one that the government said Mr. Djokovic’s presence in the country could undermine.

Mr. Djokovic has been largely silent on the subject of vaccination, though he said in April 2020, before coronavirus vaccines were available, that he opposed the idea of making inoculation compulsory for travel.

“I am no expert, but I do want to have an option to choose what’s best for my body,” he said. “I am keeping an open mind, and I’ll continue to research on this topic, because it is important and it will affect all of us.”

When he arrived in Australia this month, he acknowledged that he had not been vaccinated, but presented evidence of previous coronavirus infection to gain an exemption for travel.

Supporters of Mr. Djokovic in Belgrade this month after the Australian government revoked his visa the first time.Credit…Oliver Bunic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

However, in the end, the case revolved less around the technical aspects of the case and more around the symbolism of the moment — both in Australia and Serbia.

For Australians, who have endured some of the world’s longest pandemic lockdowns, Mr. Djokovic’s decision not to be vaccinated flew in the face of collective efforts to stop the virus.

In Serbia, Mr. Vucic and others often tied the treatment of the nation’s star tennis player to the nation itself. The president said on Sunday that Serbia would not treat athletes in such a manner.

“We will show that we are better than the Australian government,” he said.

Mr. Vucic said that even though Mr. Djokovic had lost his fight to compete in Australia, he remained a hero in his homeland.

“He can return to his country and look everyone in the eye with his head held high,” he said.

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