Tennis world No. 1 Novak Djokovic has left Melbourne after Australia's Federal Court upheld a decision to deport the athlete over his coronavirus vaccination status.
The nine-time Australian Open champion was scheduled to play in the main stadium on Day 1 of the tournament, which begins on January 17.
But a three-judge panel on January 16 unanimously supported the decision made by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to cancel Djokovic’s visa on public interest grounds because he is not vaccinated for COVID-19.
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Djokovic said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling, which dashed the 34-year-old Serb’s hope to defend his Australian Open title for the fourth time in a row. But Djokovic added that he would comply and leave the country.
Australian federal agents escorted Djokovic and his team from the business lounge to the gate of the Melbourne airport, where he boarded a flight bound for Dubai.
Australian Open organizers declined immediate comment on the court's decision.
The ATP, the governing body for men's tennis, expressed regret that Djokovic -- “one of [the] sport’s greatest champions”-- can’t play at the upcoming tournament.
The ATP also pointed out that it “continues to strongly recommend vaccination to all players.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the court ruling, saying the decision will help "keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe."
In Serbia, Djokovic's family on January 16 claimed "politics" interfered with the decision and said they were "very disappointed" with Australian authorities' decision to revoke his visa and deport him from the country.
"We are very disappointed with the decision of the Federal Court and the fact that Novak has to leave Australia," the family said in a statement. "Despite the scandalous behavior towards Novak, we believed that the sport would win."
It also said the court ruling was related with "politics and all [other] interests."
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic criticized Australia’s government for what he called the "harassing and bullying [of]...the best tennis player ever."
Djokovic is hugely popular in his home country. Vucic said he told Djokovic after the court ruling "that we can’t wait to see him in Serbia, to return to his country, to come where he is always welcome.”
Djokovic was trying to use a medical exemption to get around the requirements that everyone at the Australian Open -- players, their support teams, spectators, and others -- be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Hawke admitted that Djokovic was at "negligible" risk of infecting Australians but argued his past "disregard" for COVID-19 regulations posed a risk to public health and discouraged people from getting boosters just as the country experiences an increase in omicron infections.
Djokovic has won a total of 20 Grand Slam singles trophies, tied with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis.