Novak Djokovic’s supporters in Serbia have reacted furiously to Australia’s decision to revoke the world’s No. 1 visa for the second time, but the government has not yet officially responded and previously vociferous politicians have kept quiet.
The unvaccinated tennis star asked a court on Friday to block his deportation from the Australian Open after the Australian immigration minister revoked his visa, citing strict Covid-19 entry rules and stating it was in the public interest.
The player, who is bidding for a record 21st grand slam trophy, and his team want to overturn the decision in court, but public law experts in Australia have said that unless procedural mistakes are made, any appeal is likely to fail.
The Belgrade-born player is a national hero of almost iconic status at home, and his detention this week drew strong backlash from media and politicians alike.
Serbian 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 “went to Australia”. lured to be humiliated”.
A health ministry official on Friday insisted that a document showing Djokovic had tested positive for Covid-19 was “absolutely valid” after media outlets including Der Spiegel and the New York Times reported possible anomalies. Zoran Gojkovic added: “I defend his free will not to be vaccinated.”
However, there are signs that the government – in a delicate diplomatic position and unwilling to be seen as a proponent of vaccine restraint in one of Europe’s least provoked countries – may be beginning to distance itself from the player.
Some Belgrade residents suggested Friday that Djokovic was solely to blame. “Their country, their rules,” said a resident, Jovo Tadic. “If Australia tells you to get vaccinated to get in, do it or you’ll be in trouble.”
Another resident, Marko Stanic, said: “I think he will have a problem in other tournaments because it seems that vaccination is going to be mandatory for all tournaments. He will have to do it if he wants to stay at the top.”
Others, however, remained passionately behind their national idol. “I am in revolt. I’m angry because I didn’t expect them to treat the best tennis player in the world like this,” said Mila Aleksic. “He didn’t deserve this, he represents our country.”
Some suggested that Djokovic had become a political pawn ahead of the Australian election in May. “Australians drag him around like an old rag. They are ready to burn the number 1 in the world 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 don’t understand what it means to be a world champion, what kind of strength, will and morals it takes,” 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. “Fundamental human rights are being violated.”
Higher government figures in Serbia, which has vaccinated less than 47% of the population, well below the European average, seemed more cautious since questions have been raised about the player’s behavior after testing positive for Covid.
Prime Minister Ana Brnabić this week said Djokovic was “clearly breaking the rules” after the player admitted to making a “error of judgment” by attending an interview and photoshoot on December 18, 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 he was “tested and diagnosed” with the virus on December 16. Djokovic has since said he was not notified of the result until later the following day.
Although Brnabić said it was not entirely clear when the player had 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 violated Serbia’s strict self-isolation rules, which theoretically carry a maximum prison sentence of three years.
However, the pro-government Serbian media continued to support the star unwaveringly. The Tabloid Informer criticized “outrageous, shameful and disgraceful” behavior by the Australian authorities, which they said were “deporting a healthy Novak, ostensibly to save lives”.
The daily blic said: there was “no end to the Calvary that Novak Djokovic endured in Melbourne”, while TV Pink said the Australian decision was “just to please the people of Australia, as Djokovic has been labeled an anti-vaxxer”.
Milivoje Pantovic is a producer at N1 Television in Belgrade