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The tennis world rallied around Novak Djokovic on Sunday following his extraordinary deportation from Australia which came just hours before launching his attempt to become the most successful men’s player in history.
The 34-year-old Serb has long been a polarising figure in the sport but there was considerable sympathy after Sunday’s judicial review cancelled the visa which was previously agreed by two health panels on the grounds of a medical exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine.
Nick Kyrgios had branded Djokovic a “tool” over his attempts to ease Covid-19 protocols at last year’s Australian Open, but believes that his tennis rival was badly treated this year and responded to the verdict on Twitter with a hand on head ‘facepalm’ emoji.
John Isner, the American world No.25 who has spent 15 years on the ATP Tour with Djokovic, also said that “Nole always has and always will be class”, adding that: “He’s an absolute legend in my book that has brought so much good to millions around the world. This isn’t right.”
The French player Alize Cornet said that Djokovic “is always the first one to stand for the players” but decreed how “none of us stood for him” during his moment of need.
The process by which Djokovic could first obtain a visa, then have it rejected and be detained in an immigration detention hotel, before having it reinstated and then still be deported on the eve of his first round match, has also been widely condemned.
Salvatore Caruso, the world No.150, will now take Djokovic’s place at the top of an increasingly lopsided Australian Open draw, but his match has been replaced in Monday's headline spot by the game between Alexander Zverev and Daniel Altmaier.
Victory in Melbourne for Djokovic would have meant not only a record 10th Australian Open title but passing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 grand slam singles titles. In a further blow to his hopes of moving clear of his rivals outright, Djokovic is facing up to a three-year ban from entering Australia, according to the country's home affairs minister.
Canadian tennis player Vasek Pospisil pointed out that, "Novak would never have gone to Australia if he had not been given an exemption to enter the country by the government” and would instead have, “been home with his family and no one would be...talking about this mess”. Pospisil added that, “there was a political agenda at play here with the elections coming up which couldn’t be more obvious”.
The Ukrainian tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky agreed, saying that “politics beat common sense,” but former Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stressed that the “circus” could have been avoided if Scott Morrison, the current Prime Minister, had not allowed a visa in the first place. "He then tries to look like a hairy chested Howard: 'we decide who comes here, nobody else'. Meanwhile hospital crisis off the front page," he said.
Britain’s two most celebrated contemporary champions, Andy Murray and Emma Raducanu, have both denounced how the saga has detracted from tennis, a sentiment echoed by Patrick Mouratoglou, who is Serena Williams's coach. "The big loser of this mess is the tournament,” he said. “The only good news is that we will hopefully start talking about tennis."
Greg Rusedski, who reached the final of the US Open in 1997, questioned why the organisers had not just simplified the criteria to clearly state no medical exemptions from a requirement that all participants must be vaccinated from Covid-19.
The ATP, which is the governing body for men’s professional tennis, said that the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa had represented “the end of a deeply regrettable series of events”. The statement added: “Irrespective of how this point has been reached, Novak is one of our sport’s greatest champions and his absence from the Australian Open is a loss for the game. We know how turbulent the recent days have been for Novak and how much he wanted to defend his title in Melbourne. We wish him well and look forward to seeing him back on court soon.”
The ATP also did stress that they “strongly recommend vaccination to all players”. More than 95 per cent of leading tennis players are fully vaccinated, a statistic that contrasts sharply with English professional footballers, where the EFL recently revealed that one in four players have been refusing the jab.
There was support also for Djokovic from other sports, including Luka Milivojevic, Crystal Palace’s Serbian midfielder. He posted a list of charitable acts by Djokovic acts, asserting that “this is real Novak Djokovic”.
Under current Australian rules, Djokovic is banned from returning to the country for three years, although Morrison has said that the nine-time Australian Open champion may be able to return sooner "in the right circumstances".
"I'm not going to sort of precondition any of that or say anything that would not enable the minister to make the various calls they have to make," Morrison told Nine radio.
"I mean, it does go over a three-year period, but there is the opportunity for them to return in the right circumstances and that would be considered at the time."
Tennis Australia braces for Australian Open protests over Djokovic saga
Tennis Australia is ready to ramp up security for the Australian Open ahead of expected protests over the dramatic deportation of nine-time champion Novak Djokovic.
After a week in which police clashed with protesters on the streets of Melbourne, anti-vaccine campaigners gathered outside Djokovic’s hotel, and hundreds of people descended on Melbourne Park with the message “Free Victoria, Release Novak”, analysts were predicting further “febrile” scenes.
There could be protests from the strong local Serbian community, or from anti-vaxxers, who waved banners outside the Melbourne Park gates on Saturday.
The Australian government cancelled Djokovic’s visa on the grounds of “health and good order”, prompting the counter-argument from Djokovic’s team that ejecting the 20-time grand slam champion could have precisely the opposite impact.
A spokesperson for Tennis Australia told Telegraph Sport that security measures would be adjusted constantly to deal with the situation on the ground.
“The safety and security of all our patrons, staff and players is paramount and our highest priority,” said the spokesperson.
Djokovic’s ejection from Australia, his admission in court documents that he has not had the Covid-19 vaccination and the revelation that he broke isolation rules in Serbia, have also raised questions over his future schedule and sponsorship deals which are estimated at almost £22 million.
Raiffeisen Bank International, said it was “closely observing the current situation” after agreeing a multi-year deal with the 34-year-old last April. It was pointed out that the agreement, which has seen Djokovic become a brand ambassador, “was made long before the current reporting on Novak Djokovic and his Covid-19 vaccination status, or his participation in the Australian Open” but that his sporting success and social commitment has made him hugely popular in Central and Easter Europe.
Hublot, Peugeot, Lacoste and Asics are among Djokovic’s other main sponsors. Peugeot said it had “no comment” when contacted, while Hublot said last week that it would stick by the tennis star, who “is his own person”.