Novak Djokovic was meant to be starring on centre court at the Australian Open on Monday.
Instead, the “extremely disappointed” men’s champion was on a plane out of Australia and facing the prospect of losing his status as the world’s No.1 men’s player.
Djokovic, who must pay the federal government’s legal costs, was spotted being escorted by police at Melbourne airport before his 10.30pm flight to Dubai on Sunday.
“I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country,” he said in a statement.
“I would like to thank my family, friends, team, supporters, fans and my fellow Serbians for your continued support. You have all been a great source of strength.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison maintained the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa was in the public interest.
“Strong borders are fundamental to the Australian way of life as is the rule of law,” Mr Morrison said in a statement on Sunday night.
“Our government has always understood this and has been prepared to take the decisions and actions necessary to protect the integrity of our borders.”
But Labor immigration spokeswoman Kristina Keneally said Djokovic should not have been granted a visa to travel to Australia in the first place.
“This mess is not a failure of our laws. It is a failure of the Morrison government’s competence and leadership,” she said.
“Australians have made all the hard sacrifices during lock downs, only for Mr Morrison and his government to serve up an embarrassing and farcical series of unforced errors after they foolishly granted Mr Djokovic a visa 60 days ago.”
The Australian Lawyers Alliance was worried by the government’s legal argument, which it said set a dangerous precedent.
“Using the criteria of a possible risk to public order as a reason to refuse a person entry into the country is troubling in a society supposedly committed to freedom of speech and freedom of thought,” spokesman Greg Barns SC said.
“The federal government’s attitude could see other high-profile visitors to Australia refused entry in an attempt to suppress alternate views.”
The nine-times champion Djokovic was expelled after his last-minute challenge to a decision to cancel his visa failed on Sunday, a three-judge panel of the Federal Court ruling unanimously against him.
The decision came after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke cancelled Djokovic’s visa for a second time on Friday, citing a risk to public health and the chance the unvaccinated star’s presence in Australia could excite anti-vaccination sentiment.
Djokovic had been scheduled to begin his defence against fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic on Rod Laver Arena on Monday night.
But after five nights in a detention hotel, he wasted no time leaving and boarded an Emirates flight on Sunday night.
Pictures from the airport showed the Serb waiting in the airport lounge, escorted by his entourage.
It’s not clear whether Djokovic will travel back to Serbia or to his property in Monte Carlo, Monaco.
There there has been an emotional outpouring of anger and support in Serbia, where the country’s president, Aleksandar Vukic, urged Djokovic to come home and the prime minister, Ana Brnabic, called his treatment “scandalous”.
“We had hoped that justice would prevail. That ‘public interest’ would not serve as a pretext for a decision that was eventually made,” Djokovic’s family said, adding that politics had won over sport.
The blame game is set to intensify now that his bid to play in the Open is officially over, with Djokovic also facing the prospect of losing his cherished world No.1 ranking to either Daniil Medvedev or Alexander Zverev should one of them annex his title.
Tennis Australia will also be firmly in the crosshairs, accused of providing misleading information about vaccinations to players.
TA boss Craig Tiley has largely maintained his silence, except to blame “contradictory and conflicting” information for the saga.
Three-time major winner Andy Murray blasted Djokovic’s treatment.
“I don’t like he is in this situation and I don’t like he has been in detention,” Murray told the BBC.
“The situation has not been good all round for anyone … It feels everything here happened extremely last minute and that’s why it became such a s–t show.”
Djokovic’s bid to go one one clear of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer with a 21st grand slam title is now on ice.
And if he chooses to stay unvaccinated, it remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to contest the other three grand slams – Wimbledon, the French Open and the US Open.
But the main show goes on, with Nadal noting: “It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt – but there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event.”
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