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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's premier and Novak Djokovic's family on Sunday denounced as "scandalous" Australia's deportation of the tennis star for not being vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Serbian president said he would always be welcome in his homeland.
A unanimous ruling by a three-judge bench rejecting Djokovic's appeal against the cancellation of his visa dealt a final blow to his hopes of chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open.
Djokovic's family said in a statement that they were "very disappointed" with the decision by the Australian authorities, and that the court ruling was related with "politics and all (other) interests."
"Despite the scandalous behaviour towards Novak, we believed that the sport would win," the family said.
Serbia's Prime Minister Ana Brnabic also described the decision to deport Djokovic as "scandalous".
"I am disappointed...I think it demonstrated how the rule of law is functioning, or better to say not functioning, in some other countries. In any case, I can hardly wait to see Novak Djokovic in our own country, in Serbia," Brnabic told reporters in Belgrade.
The world's top men's tennis player was first detained by Australian immigration authorities on Jan. 6, ordered released by a court on Jan. 10 and then detained again on Saturday, after Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used discretionary powers to cancel his visa.
Djokovic, 34, flew out of Australia bound for Dubai on Sunday evening after saying in a brief statement that he was extremely disappointed by the court ruling and would respect it.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he had spoken to Djokovic after the court decision. "I told him he is always welcome in Serbia," Vucic told reporters.
The Serbian Tennis Association (TSS) said in a statement that the "farce is over" and "politics has beaten sport."
"Novak Djokovic...has been denied an opportunity to win a milestone 10th title (in Australia). Political pressure has led to the revocation of his visa to satisfy ‘public interest’," the TSS said.
"...It begs the question whether athletes will from now on be incarcerated like criminals and deported when it suits the political interests of powerful individuals," it said.
Sports Minister Vanja Udovicic, a former professional water polo player, said Djokovic was the best tennis player ever. "Everything else is nonsense and shame, absurdity and hypocrisy! Legend, pride of Serbia, we are with you," he said.
In the Serbian capital Belgrade, Djokovic's home city, many support him though some felt he should have been vaccinated.
"I think Australia should be ashamed of itself and that the decision was not a just one. I am sorry for Novak as a tennis player and as a person," said Danilo Mircic, a student.
"If I were him, I would get vaccinated and avoid problems in the future," said Aleksandar Janjic, a middle-aged computer programmer.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac, Aleksandar Vasovic and Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Raissa Kasolowsky)