Novak Djokovic could face French Open battle as rules on unvaccinated tighten

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Novak Djokovic was still on his way home from Australia when another obstacle was put in his path in the form of a tightening of regulations in France towards the unvaccinated.

The first day of play at the Australian Open was overshadowed by the fallout from the government’s ultimately successful efforts to deport Djokovic ahead of the tournament because of his perceived threat to public health and order.

The world number one arrived in Dubai on Monday morning on his way to Serbia having said in a statement following the verdict of the Federal Court that he would take some time “to rest and to recuperate”.

Djokovic’s continued resistance to being vaccinated against Covid-19 is fast emerging as the biggest threat to his quest to firmly establish himself as the best male player of all time.

Had he played in Melbourne, he would have been a big favourite to win a 21st grand slam, moving him clear of his great rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

He is unlikely to play the big ATP tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami in March unless he changes his stance because of the USA’s tight restrictions, and on Sunday French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu performed an about-turn by saying sportspeople will need to be vaccinated to compete in the country.

Maracineau last week defended the idea of bubbles for unvaccinated athletes but on Sunday reversed that position after the passing of stricter measures in the French parliament, putting Djokovic’s defence of his French Open title in danger.

Fans take a photo in front of a picture of Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park
Fans take a photo in front of a picture of Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park (Hamish Blair/AP)

There appears no prospect of the British government following suit but it is not inconceivable that Wimbledon could be the only grand slam tournament where Djokovic competes in 2022.

His deportation also carries an automatic three-year ban from Australia, although it can be waived if there are deemed to be compelling reasons.

Much can still change ahead of the summer, of course, and Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation, told l’Equipe: “Our teams are working in collaboration with the public authorities, who will specify in due course the rules relating to the reception of unvaccinated foreign athletes for our tournament.”

Djokovic received support at Melbourne Park on Monday from his compatriots, with Laslo Djere saying the saga would change opinions of Australia around the world while Dusan Lajovic labelled the treatment of the world number one “terribly wrong”.

Djokovic received an exemption to the rules requiring Covid vaccination to enter Australia based on a positive test for the virus in December but that decision was met with widespread public anger and the nine-time Melbourne champion was detained on arrival in the country.

He successfully overturned an initial decision to cancel his visa on procedural grounds but Immigration Minister Alex Hawke re-imposed the penalty, citing the potential for Djokovic’s presence in the country to foster anti-vaccination sentiment.

Djere said: “I think the whole world saw it and they probably will have a new or different opinion about Australia. I mean, the guy had the exemption and they still deported him. Something went horribly wrong. It was a true catastrophic situation.

“He’s a great guy and always tries to help others and won the tournament nine times. Yet most of the Australian people wanted that he leaves.

“Nick Kyrgios also mentioned two years ago when there were the bush fires, he donated I think a good amount of money and everything and now here in Australia everyone just turned their back on him.”

Lajovic added: “I think the way they treated him was terribly wrong. I think the decision itself was terribly wrong and also the reason why they did it is for me terribly wrong because, based on just an idea, I don’t think it’s the right way.”

Support for Djokovic has been in short supply both among the Australian public and in the locker room, although several players voiced their unease at the situation and outcome on Sunday.

“I saw that some of the guys did support him,” said Lajovic. “Many from the top did not but maybe, from their point of view, they know that Novak is one of the favourites for the title, so for them they have one obstacle less in this case.”

Nadal has been one of the most vocal critics of Djokovic’s conduct and the Spaniard said after beating Marcos Giron: “I will never be against what the justice says.

Rafael Nadal has been critical of Novak Djokovic
Rafael Nadal has been critical of Novak Djokovic (Simon Baker/AP)

“The ideal situation in the world of sport is that the best players are on court and playing the most important events without a doubt. I wish him all the best. I think the situation has been a mess.

“He’s not the only one that did probably the things bad in that case. But of course he is one of the (people) responsible, too.”

Djokovic has shown throughout his career a capacity to be spurred on by adversity and Djere believes the same will be true this time.

“That’s what he does,” said the 26-year-old. “That’s also in our Serbian mentality. When we get beat down or we are treated in a bad way or how we maybe don’t deserve, we just try, especially him, to be inspired by that and gain strength from that. I’m sure that he will come back stronger than ever.”

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