MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Instead of starting the defense of his Australian Open title on Monday, Novak Djokovic was on his way home, a stunning and unprecedented end to his run of success at Melbourne Park.
Djokovic has won nine of his 20 Grand Slam trophies at the Australian Open — including three in a row — and was scheduled to play in the main stadium to conclude Day 1 of the tournament.
But the No. 1-ranked player in men’s tennis had to be deported from Australia after three Federal Court judges decided unanimously Sunday to affirm the immigration minister’s right to cancel Djokovic’s visa. The ruling was made less than 18 hours before the first Grand Slam matches of 2022 were scheduled to begin.
Djokovic said he was “extremely disappointed” by the legal outcome but respected the decision and would cooperate in his “departure from the country.” He also said he planned “to rest and to recuperate.”
The 34-year-old from Serbia was trying to use a medical exemption approved by two independent medical panels and Tennis Australia to get around the requirements that everyone at the Australian Open — players, their support teams, spectators and others — be inoculated against COVID-19.
Djokovic is not vaccinated, and the government said his presence could stir up anti-vaccine sentiments.
The saga started on Jan. 5, when Djokovic’s flight landed at a Melbourne airport.
“I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me,” he said Sunday, “and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.”
Tennis Australia issued a statement saying it “respects the decision of the Federal Court” and added: “We look forward to a competitive and exciting Australian Open 2022 and wish all players the best of luck.”
Djokovic’s absence means just one past champion is in the men’s bracket: 2009 winner Rafael Nadal. And that also means now it is only Nadal who will have a chance to claim a 21st Grand Slam title and break a tie with Djokovic and Roger Federer (who is sidelined after a series of knee operations).
Djokovic’s dominance in Grand Slam play of late has been particularly impressive, winning four of the last seven major tournaments and finishing as the runner-up at two others. The only time he did not get at least to the final in that span was at the 2020 U.S. Open, where he was disqualified in the fourth round for hitting a ball that inadvertently hit a line judge in the throat after a game.
Last season, Djokovic went 27-1 at majors, coming within a victory in the U.S. Open final of becoming the first man since 1969 to win a calendar-year Grand Slam.
On Monday night, Djokovic was supposed to play Miomir Kecmanovic, a Serbian ranked 78th, at Rod Laver Arena, the main stadium.
Instead, Kecmanovic will head to a smaller arena to face 150th-ranked Salvatore Caruso of Italy, a so-called “lucky loser” — someone who loses in qualifying rounds but gets access to the main draw because someone else withdraws after the first day’s schedule was released.