Novak Djokovic’s sponsors seek a ‘please explain’ after Australian deportation fiasco

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Lacoste, one of Djokovic's biggest sponsors, is seeking discussions with the player following the Australian Open saga - Darko Bandic /AP
Lacoste, one of Djokovic's biggest sponsors, is seeking discussions with the player following the Australian Open saga - Darko Bandic /AP

Novak Djokovic made a subdued return to Serbia on Monday as sponsors sought discussions with him over his dramatic deportation from Australia.

The world number one tennis player, who had flown overnight from Melbourne via Dubai after being deported for his non-vaccinated status, slipped quietly out of Belgrade airport without talking to the press.

He was whisked away through a side exit of Nikola Tesla Airport shortly after arriving.

It was not the rapturous hero’s welcome that some had predicted, although a group of fans waited in the arrivals area, hoping to greet him.

They waved Serbian flags and one fan had a sign that read: “Novak, God bless you.”

In Belgrade city centre, a large illuminated message calling Djokovic “the pride of Serbia” lit up a tall office building.

The star’s mother, Dijana, said Djokovic would be recovering for a few days in Belgrade and would not be making any public comments.

One of the 34-year-old tennis star’s biggest sponsors said it was seeking talks with him over his deportation from Australia.

Novak Djokovic arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport after the Australian Federal Court upheld a decision to cancel his visa - CHRISTOPHER PIKE /REUTERS
Novak Djokovic arrives at Nikola Tesla Airport after the Australian Federal Court upheld a decision to cancel his visa - CHRISTOPHER PIKE /REUTERS

Lacoste, the French clothing manufacturer, became the first of the Serb’s backers to speak out following the end of an extraordinary 10-day saga sparked by his refusal to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

“As soon as possible, we will be in touch with Novak Djokovic to review the events that have accompanied his presence in Australia,” Lacoste said in a statement.

It came as the French government announced any player hoping to compete in the French Open, the next grand slam in the tennis calendar, will not be exempt from vaccine rules.

The government said that a tough new vaccine pass law, approved by parliament on Sunday, “applies to everyone, to volunteers and to elite sportspeople, including those coming from abroad, until further notice.”

“As far as Roland Garros is concerned, it's in May. The situation may change between now and then and we hope it'll be more favourable. So we'll see but clearly there's no exemption,” the French sports ministry said in a statement.

The move leaves Djokovic, who is hoping to win a record 21st Grand Slam title, facing the prospect of missing two of the four blue ribbon events this year.

Djokovic was thrown out of Australia on Sunday – and banned from returning for three years – after the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said he had become “perceived by some as a talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”.

‘Anti-vaxx poster boy’

Marcel Knobil, the founder of Superbrands and the Brand Council consultancy, told The Telegraph that Djokovic’s £22 million annual endorsements could be at risk if he embraced being portrayed as “the anti-vaxx poster boy”.

Before he was deported from Australia, the player said he was “extremely disappointed” after a Federal Court upheld the cancellation of his visa on public order grounds.

Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, did however hint that the player could be allowed to return to Australia within three years “in the right circumstances”.

Mr Morrison on Monday defended his handling of the situation and differentiated Djokovic's case from vaccine sceptics within his own government.

Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, hinted that the player could be allowed to return to Australia within three years - LUKAS COCH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock
Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, hinted that the player could be allowed to return to Australia within three years - LUKAS COCH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock

“If you’re someone coming from overseas, and there are conditions for you to enter this country, then you have to comply with them,” he said. “This is about someone who sought to come to Australia and not comply with the entry rules at our border.”

Among the crowd hoping to see Djokovic at Belgrade’s airport was Dragica, who told AFP: “What they have done to him is shameful. I love him and I came to greet him. I am 71 years old and my foot hurts, but I came anyway.”

Aleksander Vucic, Serbia’s president, has been accused of undermining his government’s own efforts to boost vaccination rates with his full-throated support of Djokovic.

“The president did obtain the vaccines in good time, but he is opportunistic and now he doesn’t mind supporting a cause that could be interpreted as a boost for anti-vaxxers,” Zoran Radovanovic, an epidemiologist who has overseen previous vaccination campaigns, told the Wall Street Journal.

Serbia’s vaccination rate stands below 50 per cent according to Our World in Data.

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