Novak Djokovic’s supporters in Serbia have reacted furiously to Australia’s decision to cancel the world tennis No 1’s visa for a second time, but the government has yet to respond officially and previously vociferous politicians have stayed quiet.
The unvaccinated tennis star on Friday asked a court to block his deportation before the Australian Open after Australia’s immigration minister revoked his visa, citing strict Covid-19 entry regulations and stating it was in the public interest.
The player, bidding for a record 21st grand slam trophy, and his team are seeking to have the decision overturned in court, but public law experts in Australia have said that unless there have been procedural errors, any appeal is likely to fail.
The Belgrade-born player is national hero with near iconic status at home, and his detention this week drew fierce reactions from media and politicians alike.
Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, took to social media to denounce “harassment” and a “political witch-hunt” targeting “the best tennis player in the world”, while the foreign ministry said he had been “lured to Australia to be humiliated”.
A health ministry official insisted on Friday that a document showing Djokovic had tested positive for Covid-19 was “absolutely valid” after media including Der Spiegel and the New York Times reported possible anomalies. Zoran Gojkovic added: “I defend his free will not to get vaccinated.”
There are signs, however, that the government – in a delicate position diplomatically and unwilling to be seen as promoting vaccine hesitancy in one of Europe’s least-jabbed countries – may be starting to distance itself from the player.
Some Belgrade residents suggested on Friday that Djokovic had only himself to blame. “Their country, their rules,” said one resident, Jovo Tadic. “If Australia tells you to get vaccinated to enter, do it, or face problems.”
Another resident, Marko Stanic, said: “I think he’ll have a problem in other tournaments, because it seems vaccination is going to be mandatory for all of them. He’ll have to do it if he wants to stay at the top.”
Others, though, remained passionately behind their national idol. “I am revolted. I am angry because I did not expect that they would treat the world’s best tennis player like this,” said Mila Aleksic. “He did not deserve this; he is representing our country.”
Some suggested Djokovic had become a political pawn in the run-up to Australian election in May. “Australians are dragging him around like an old rag. They are ready to burn the world’s No 1 because of politics,” said Aleksandar Petrovic.
Djokovic’s former coach, Niki Pilic, called the situation “shameful” and said the star was being treated like a criminal. “People do not understand what it means to be a world champion, what kind of strength, will and morale is needed,” he said.
Nebojsa Covic, a former politician who owns the Red Star Belgrade basketball club, said the controversy had made Djokovic “a symbol of the free world” and “the moral winner of the tournament”. The player was “a global star, a beacon of free men”, he said. “Basic human rights are being violated.”
Senior government figures in Serbia, which has vaccinated less than 47% of its population, far below the European average, have appeared more circumspect since questions have emerged over the player’s conduct after testing positive for Covid.
The prime minister, Ana Brnabić, said this week Djokovic seemed to be “in clear violation of the rules” after the player acknowledged making an “error of judgment” by attending an interview and photoshoot on 18 December 2021 knowing he had Covid.
He also made at least two public appearances in Belgrade the previous day, one of them with children, despite court documents saying had been “tested and diagnosed” with the virus on 16 December. Djokovic has since said he was not informed of the result until later the next day.
Although Brnabić said it was not completely clear when the player had got his test result, she added: “If you know you are positive, you should be in isolation.” She said she strongly disapproved of his stance on vaccination.
Lawyers have said Djokovic could face a fine or, more likely, community service if he is found to have breached Serbia’s strict self-isolation rules, which in theory carry a maximum jail term of three years.
However, pro-government Serbian media remained staunchly supportive of the star. The tabloid Informer criticised “scandalous, shameful and discraceful” behaviour by the Australian authorities, who it said were “deporting a healthy Novak supposedly to save lives”.
The daily Blic said the there was “no end to the Calvary being endured by Novak Djokovic in Melbourne”, while TV Pink said the Australian decision was “only to satisfy the people of Australia, since Djokovic has been labelled an anti-vaxxer”.
Milivoje Pantovic is a producer with N1 Television in Belgrade