'Dragged around like a rag' or 'Their country, their rules'? Serbians split on Djokovic

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic practices at Melbourne Park as questions remain over the legal battle regarding his visa to play in the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, January 12, 2022. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic is a national hero at home in Serbia, but after Australia on Friday cancelled his visa for a second time on public health grounds, some Belgraders suggested that the unvaccinated tennis star had only himself to blame.

The world men's number one player is opposed to compulsory vaccination but had secured a medical exemption from Australia's requirement that all visitors must be vaccinated against COVID-19, only to find it revoked when he arrived.

Although a court reversed that decision on procedural grounds, most Australians back their government's tough line on the pandemic, and Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used his power to cancel the visa again.

"Their country, their rules," Jovo Tadic told Reuters in Belgrade. "If Australia tells you to get vaccinated to enter, do it - or face problems."

The holder of 20 Grand Slam titles is revered as Serbia's greatest athlete, but many in Belgrade say his refusal to be vaccinated may now blight his career.

"I think he'll have a problem in other tournaments as it seems vaccination will be mandatory for all of them ... he'll have to do it if he wants to stay at the top," said Belgrader Marko Stanic.

Although Djokovic has not campaigned against vaccination, he has spoken about the benefits of alternative approaches to health and nutrition.

"He can either vaccinate to remain world number one - or he can be stubborn and end his career," said Ana Bojic.

Australia has endured some of the world's longest lockdowns and has seen a sharp spike in cases due to the Omicron variant.

But some in Belgrade still thought Djokovic had been made a political scapegoat by the government of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who must hold an election by May.

"Australians are dragging him around like an old rag ... they are ready to burn world's number one because of politics," said Aleksandar Petrovic.

"He won nine grand slams (in Australia) and they are treating him like some wretched migrant because of their own problems," said Djordje Simic.

Nikola Pilic, a Croatian who oversaw the beginning of Djokovic's career, said he was not surprised with another visa cancellation.

"They created chaos," he said. "As of day one, ... they started treating him as a criminal. It is not the first time that Novak was treated differently than (Rafael) Nadal and (Roger) Federer," Pilic told Belgrade's Prva TV.

COVID-19 has killed 13,003 people in Serbia, which has a population of about 7 million, while 1.39 million cases have been recorded there. Around 47% of Serbians have been fully vaccinated.

(Reporting by Fedja Grulovic and Ivana Sekularac; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Hugh Lawson)

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