DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — Novak Djokovic arrived early Monday in Dubai after his deportation from Australia over its required COVID-19 vaccination ended the No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player’s hopes of defending his Australian Open title.
The Emirates plane carrying Djokovic touched down after a 13½-hour flight from Melbourne, where he had argued in court he should be allowed to stay in the country and compete in the tournament under a medical exemption due to a coronavirus infection last month.
Dubai International Airport was quiet early Monday as flights from Australia and Asia began to arrive. Passengers wearing mandatory face masks collected their bags and walked out of the cavernous terminal.
It wasn’t immediately clear where Djokovic planned to travel next. The Dubai Duty Free tennis tournament, which Djokovic won in 2020, doesn’t start until Feb. 14.
Dubai, the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, doesn’t require travelers to be vaccinated, though they must show a negative PCR test to board a flight.
Djokovic has won nine Australian Open titles, including three in a row, and 20 Grand Slam singles trophies, tied with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis. Federer is not playing while recovering from injury, and Nadal is the only former Australian Open men’s champion in the tournament that began Monday.
Djokovic’s visa was initially canceled Jan. 6 by a border official who decided he didn’t qualify for a medical exemption from Australia’s rules for unvaccinated visitors. He was exempted from the tournament’s vaccine rules because he had been infected with the virus within the previous six months.
He won an appeal to stay for the tournament, but Australia’s immigration minister later revoked his visa. Three Federal Court judges decided unanimously Sunday to affirm the immigration minister’s right to cancel Djokovic’s visa.
Vaccination amid the pandemic was a requirement for anyone at the Australian Open, whether players, their coaches or anyone at the tournament site. More than 95% of all top-100 men and women in their tours’ rankings are vaccinated. At least two men — American Tennys Sandgren and Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert — skipped the first major tournament of the year because of the vaccine requirement.
Djokovic’s attempt to get the medical exemption for not being vaccinated sparked anger in Australia, where strict lockdowns in cities and curbs on international travel have been employed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus since the pandemic began.
Meanwhile in Melbourne, the Australian Open started without Djokovic, and finally the focus was on forehands and backhands instead of his fight to avoid deportation.
Fifth-seeded Maria Sakkari started the program on the main court at Melbourne Park with a 6-4, 7-6 (2) win over Tatjana Maria, with defending champion Naomi Osaka following at Rod Laver Arena with a relatively trouble-free 6-3, 6-3 win over Camila Osorio.
In two early results on Day 1 of the first major tennis tournament of 2022, Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic beat Kristina Mladenovic 6-4, 6-3, and 15th-seeded Elina Svitolina got past Fiona Ferro 6-1, 7-6 (4).
Later Monday, Nadal was set to renew his bid for a men’s-record 21st Grand Slam singles title with a first-round match against Marcos Giron of the U.S.
Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009 and is the only past champion in the men’s bracket after Djokovic’s late withdrawal Sunday. Federer is skipping the tournament to continue recovering from knee surgery.
Djokovic had been scheduled to play Monday night’s last match in Laver, following No. 1-ranked woman Ash Barty’s contest, but instead the 34-year-old Serb was on the flight that landed in Dubai.
A security official with a loudspeaker reminded people lining up outside the complex early Monday to have proof of vaccination ready for inspection and added: “Oh, a ticket would be handy too!”
Fans were taking photographs at the main stadium in front of an image of Djokovic holding up the trophy he won each of the past three years.
AP’s John Pye reported from Melbourne.