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Djokovic lands in Serbia as questions arise in connection with the French Open

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - Novak Djokovic returned home on Monday after being prevented from defending his Australian Open title only to face another setback: He could also be ruled out of the French Open this year if he still does not has been vaccinated against COVID-19.

An aircraft with the No. 1 ranked player touched down in his native Serbia and concludes at least the first chapter of a dizzying drama that resonates in the world of elite sports, Australia's pandemic policy and the polarized debate over coronavirus shots.

A handful of fans waving the Serbian flag greeted him at Belgrade airport. Djokovic has an almost iconic status in Serbia, and many there felt he was being treated badly by Australia.

But his problems may not be over yet: he could be ruled out of the French Open this year, under a new law aimed at excluding the unvaccinated from stadiums and other public places. Much could change between now and the start of the Grand Slam tournament at the end of May, but it raised the ghost that the recent saga in Australia would not just be a blip, but an ongoing challenge for the athlete who in increasingly being held out as a hero from the anti-vaccine movement.

A member of the French parliament, Christophe Castaner, said the new law would apply to anyone wishing to play in the French Open - a reversal of previous plans to create a "bubble" around the tournament.

"To do your job, to have fun or leisure, to play a sport, it will be necessary to present a vaccine. This will be valid for people living in France, but also for foreigners who come to our country to go on holiday or to a major sports competition, Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu told BFM television on Monday.

But some details about the law are still being hash out - including how it will deal with people who have recently recovered from COVID-19, as Djokovic says he has. The question is how recent the infection must be to qualify for an exemption from the vaccination rules.

Djokovic is also the defending champion at Wimbledon, which begins at the end of June. But so far, England have allowed exceptions to various coronavirus rules for visiting athletes if they stay at their accommodation when not competing or training. The American Tennis Federation, which is holding the US Open, has said it will follow the government's rules on vaccination status.

It is also not clear when Djokovic can return to Australia. Expulsion can lead to a three-year ban on returning to the country, although this may be waived depending on the circumstances.

For now, a warm welcome awaits Djokovic, who has overwhelming support in his native Serbia, where his immediate family lives. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has accused the Australian government of "harassing" the top-ranked tennis star and urged him to return home.

"God bless you Novak," read one of the banners held by fans at the airport as he was led through passport control and customs and 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 would remain in Belgrade for the next few days and would not make statements to the media.

Djokovic's Australian saga began when he was granted a dispensation for strict vaccination rules by two medical panels and the tournament organizer to play in the Australian Open based on documents he provided showing that he had recently had COVID-19. He received a visa to enter the country through an automated process. But on arrival, border officials said the exception was not valid and moved to deport him.

The first news that the star had received the exemption triggered anger in Australia, where strict roadblocks in cities and borders for international travel have been used to try to control the spread of coronavirus since the pandemic began.

More than 95% of all Top 100 men and women tennis players on their respective rankings are vaccinated. At least two other men - American Tennys Sandgren and Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert - skipped the Australian Open due to vaccine requirements.

Eventually, the Australian authorities revoked Djokovic's visa, saying his presence could set the anti-vaccine mood in motion and that it was necessary to kick him out to keep Australians safe. He was deported on Sunday, the day before the tournament started in Melbourne.

Djokovic has won nine titles there before. He had hoped this year to secure his 21st Grand Slam singles trophy, breaking the record he shares with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most part in men's tennis history. Federer does not play while recovering from an injury, but Nadal competes.

When the legal battle took place in Australia, Djokovic admitted that he had participated in an interview in Belgrade in December with journalists from the newspaper L'Equipe after testing positive for coronavirus. He later described this "an error" in the assessment.

Asked if Djokovic would be punished for mocking his isolation while infected when he returns to Serbia, Serbian officials said he would not because the country is not in a state of emergency.

Djokovic is a national hero in Serbia, whose president had called the Australian court hearing "a farce with a lot of lies."

"Novak, welcome home, you know we all support you here," said Snezana Jankovic, a Belgrade resident. "They can take your visa, but they can not remove your Serbian pride."


Associated Press writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.


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