Novak Djokovic could rely on one thing during his involuntary stay in a Melbourne asylum detention center: rock-solid support from his supporters back home in Serbia.
While the country was celebrating Orthodox Christmas on Friday, Serbs were united behind the world number one in men’s tennis – and notorious coronavirus vaccine skeptic – whose participation in the Australian Open is doubtful after authorities there withdrew his entry visa after landing.
Djokovic, who was critical of vaccinations and restrictions amid the pandemic, refused to disclose his vaccination status to authorities. He relied on a medical release to come to Australia, where he was hoping to get a record 21st “grand slam” title and his 10th Australian trophy.
Belgrade’s Foreign Ministry complained that Djokovic had been the victim of a “political game” and accused him of “being lured to travel to Australia to be humiliated”.
It insists the star be allowed to spend Christmas in better accommodation – a dig at Melbourne’s Park Hotel, where Djokovic was housed in quarantine quarters with refugees, some detained for years.
There was “understandable outrage from his supporters and citizens of Serbia”, the foreign ministry said.
The Serbian Orthodox Church also weighed in. His patriarch Porfirije said he had spoken to Djokovic and assured him of his support.
“Dear Novak, some of the hardships and temptations you are going through on Christmas Day, the day of joy, will only remain a pale shadow tomorrow,” Porfirije wrote on Instagram. “Millions of Orthodox Serbs pray for you, as you do for us.”
Djokovic was close to the Orthodox Church, which gave him his highest honor, the order of St Sava, in 2011 for his assistance to monasteries, especially in Kosovo.
In addition to criticizing mandatory vaccinations and restrictions, Djokovic, 34, also violated pandemic rules and organized a series of exhibition tennis events, called the Adria Tour, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave in 2020, which helped fight infections. spread. He and his wife contracted the virus.
His stance on the pandemic has done little to hurt his support across the Balkans, where vaccine skepticism is high and vaccination rates are well below the European average.
In Serbia, less than half of the population received a first dose of a vaccine, compared to more than 70 percent in the EU, according to FT data. The coronavirus was more deadly in the Balkans as in Europe as a whole, with Serbia recording multiple deaths per capita several times the EU for most of the autumn.
With just three months left until the Serbian election, political leaders have expressed support for Djokovic, whose role is widely seen as a measure of national unity.
“I have just completed my telephone conversation with Novak Djokovic,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic posted on Instagram this week.
“I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our authorities are doing everything possible to ensure that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately.”
Former Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, leader of the ruling Socialist Party, said Djokovic “did not invite himself, they granted him the so-called release,” Dacic told TV Pink, recalling a similar release he had to take. get access to the Glasgow Climate Summit with its Russian vaccines.
Dacic called Djokovic’s treatment “disgraceful” and said in Australia “politics is unstable because everyone is chasing ratings. . . leads to political abuse. “
Djokovic’s family this week led a small protest outside the country’s parliament, where several hundred people draped themselves in national flags to express solidarity with the tennis star. His father, Srdjan Djokovic, said his son was the symbol of a “free world.”
“Shame on them, the whole freedom-loving world must stand up with Serbia,” Srdjan Djokovic said. “They crucified Jesus and now they are trying to crucify Novak in the same way and force him to his knees.”