Novak Djokovic is facing the possibility of being banned from the French Open as well as the Australian Open in a massive new blow for the tennis star.
Djokovic returned home to Serbia on Monday after being deported from Australia.
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However he now faces a new predicament. He could be barred from the French Open this year too if he’s still not vaccinated against Covid-19.
France's sports ministry announced on Monday that elite sportspeople would need to be vaccinated to perform in the country.
The ministry said a new vaccine pass, approved by the French parliament on Sunday, "applies to everyone, to volunteers and to elite sportspeople, including those coming from abroad, until further notice."
The move appears to contradict an assertion from Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu last week that certain events like the French Open had a special exemption which could allow Djokovic to play in the tournament without being vaccinated against coronavirus.
Major events like the French Open previously permitted unvaccinated athletes to compete, as they operated a health bubble around the tournament.
But if no exemption is possible, the move would destroy the 34-year-old Serb's hopes of defending his French Open title and potentially winning an unprecedented 21st grand slam singles crown.
Djokovic's hopes of a major title in 2022 would then rest on Wimbledon, as New York's vaccination rules (as they currently stand), would also rule him out of the US Open.
Much could change between now and the start of the French Open in late May.
But it has raised the possibility that the recent saga in Australia would not just be a blip but an ongoing challenge for the athlete, who is increasingly being held up as a hero by the anti-vaccine movement.
France's vaccine pass law will require people to carry vaccination certificates to enter public places such as restaurants, cafes, cinemas and intercity trains.
“To do your job, to come for pleasure or leisure, to practice a sport, it will be necessary to present a vaccine," Maracineanu told BFM television on Monday.
"This will be valid for people who live in France but also for foreigners who come to our country for vacation or for a major sports competition."
The first major international sports event to be directly affected would be the upcoming Six Nations rugby championship when France will host Italy on February 6, Ireland on February 12 and England on March 19.
Warm welcome as Novak Djokovic returns home
Djokovic kept a low profile as he returned to the place where he will always be welcome following his deportation from Australia.
A small but noisy band of supporters were at Belgrade airport to greet the World No.1 on Monday.
However, they saw little of the 34-year-old as the Serbian hero was whisked through passport control and customs, then driven by his brother Djordje to his apartment in Belgrade.
The official Tanjug news agency reported that Djokovic's mother, Dijana, said her son will remain in Belgrade in the coming days and won't make statements for the media.
"God bless you Novak," read one of the banners held by fans at Nikola Tesla Airport who chanted "You are our champion!" and, using the diminutive of his name, "We love you, Nole!"
"Novak, welcome home, you know that we all support you here," said Snezana Jankovic, a Belgrade resident. "They can take away your visa, but they cannot take away your Serbian pride."
"I think he entered history as a hero, as a man and as a fighter against this evil which is called corona-circus," added Marko Strugalovic, 60, at Belgrade airport.
Djokovic had earlier worn a mask and accepted selfies with fans as he arrived in Dubai en route from Melbourne, changing planes for the six-hour flight to Belgrade.
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