Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic arrived back home in Belgrade Monday after his deportation from Australia over his coronavirus vaccination status demolished his dream of earning a record 21st Grand Slam title in Melbourne.
The unvaccinated men's world number one flew out of Melbourne on Sunday after he failed in a last-gasp court bid to stay and play in the Australian Open.
The Serb briefly had a stopover in Dubai and then landed at Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport where he was whisked away through a side exit shortly after arriving, according to two separate sources at the airport.
"He's already left through another door," a security guard told reporters. A second airport employee also confirmed that Djokovic had arrived but had left through a "technical exit".
A small group of fans waited outside the arrivals' area to welcome Djokovic as he arrived, with some waving Serbian flags and another holding a sign that said "Novak, God bless you".
"Novak is the number one for us and for the world. Whether he wins or loses, we support him," said Djurdja Avramov as she stood with her child who wore a home-made shirt that read "Nole" -- Djokovic’s popular nickname in Serbia.
"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," said retiree Dragica, who did not give her last name.
The dramatic deportation followed a protracted, high-stakes legal battle between 34-year-old Djokovic and the Australian authorities that polarised opinion and tarnished reputations on both sides.
Djokovic is likely to be received as a hero in Serbia, with the fiasco in Melbourne appearing to only fuel his standing at home as a fighter who dared to challenge the establishment.
On Sunday night, the message "Nole you are the pride of Serbia" flashed from an LED-panel sign on a building in downtown Belgrade.
Before he was deported from Australia, Djokovic said he was "extremely disappointed" after a Federal Court unanimously upheld the cancellation of his visa on public order grounds.
He now faces a possible three-year ban from Australia, where he was won nine of his 20 Grand Slam titles -- a tally that equals the all-time record alongside Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
But while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said "there was a very clear message sent" by the decision, he hinted that Djokovic could be allowed to return to Australia within three years.
"It (the ban) does go over a three-year period, but there is the opportunity for them to return in the right circumstances and that would be considered at the time," Morrison said in a radio interview.
The humbled Djokovic boarded an Emirates flight from Melbourne's Tullamarine airport and arrived in Dubai before dawn on Monday, accompanied by a retinue of coaches and aides.
Twice in the last 11 days Australia's government had ripped up Djokovic's visa and placed him in immigration detention -- saying his presence could fuel anti-vaccine sentiment amid a wave of cases of the Omicron variant.
The Serbian star fought the decision in court, winning one round but losing Sunday's decider in Australia's Federal Court, ending a week of legal drama.
"I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love," Djokovic said, acknowledging the game was up.
The controversy looks set to rumble on, with Djokovic's image seriously damaged and Australia feeding a growing reputation for hostility towards visitors.
- 'A mess' -
Rafael Nadal -- who in Djokovic's absence from the Open could become the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles -- said "justice had spoken" but that the Serb was not the only one to blame for the "mess" that overshadowed the tournament.
"Almost one week ago when he won in the first instance... he was able to get back his visa and was practising. I said the justice have spoke," Nadal said after cruising into the tournament's second round.
"Yesterday the justice said another thing. I will never be against what the justice says."
Djokovic's chances of playing in the next Grand Slam tournament, the French Open, were thrown into doubt Monday when government sources told AFP that any athlete who wished to compete in France will have to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The ministry said a new vaccine pass, approved by parliament on Sunday, "applies to everyone, to volunteers and to elite sportspeople, including those coming from abroad, until further notice."