Novak Djokovic’s family have said he is the victim of “a political agenda” aimed at “stomping on Serbia” as protesters in Belgrade called for his release and Serbia’s president insisted “the whole country” was behind him.
The 34-year-old world tennis No 1, who was born in the Serb capital, is in detention in an immigration hotel in Melbourne pending a legal challenge to Australia’s decision on Wednesday to cancel a visa that would allow him to play in the Australian Open.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Serb assembly on Thursday afternoon after a call for support from Djokovic’s family. The player’s father told a press conference that he could not be defeated “by anyone, not even the Australian government”.
Djokovic was being “persecuted”, Srdjan Djokovic said. “They’re keeping him in captivity. They’re stomping all over him to stomp all over Serbia and the Serbian people. [Scott] Morrison [Australia’s prime minister] and his like have dared attack Novak to bring Serbia to its knees.”
Australian officials have said the player, who has refused to reveal his Covid vaccination status but previously said he was opposed to vaccination, was refused entry because he failed to meet vaccination exemption requirements.
But Srdjan said: “This has nothing to do with sports, this is a political agenda. Novak is the best player and the best athlete in the world, but several hundred million people from the west can’t stomach that.”
Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, said he was being scapegoated and described the situation as scandalous. “Our Novak, our pride,” she said. “Novak is Serbia, and Serbia is Novak. They want to clip his wings, but we know how strong he is.”
Displaying the nine Australian Open trophies Djokovic has won, the player’s father said Serbia was “a proud nation, a civilised nation, we have never attacked, just defended ourselves. That is what Novak is doing right now.”
The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, posted on Instagram that he had “told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and [we] are doing everything to see the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end. In line with all norms of international law, Serbia will fight for Novak, truth and justice.”
Vučić said he had spoken to Djokovic twice and to the player’s father multiple times, and Serb ministers were in touch with their Australian counterparts. “All are asking just one thing: to let Novak move out from this horrific hotel into a rented home,” the president said.
What was “not fair”, he said, was “this political witch-hunt everyone is taking part in – even the Australian prime minister. But I am afraid this type of political ranting will continue. They want to prove something else. When you can’t beat someone then you do these kind of things.”
While pro-government media were strident in their support for the player, many Serbians were more divided on the issue. “This is all against Novak,” said Milan Klaric, from the city of Vršac, two hours north-east of the capital. “They don’t like him so they use every means they can against him. How come that he got a visa and then it was revoked? They are afraid of him.”
However, Jelena Goricki, also from Vršac, said she was not concerned by the player’s problems. “I really love how he plays, I cheer him on,” she said. “But this? Sorry, but I got my jab. He does not have my support.”
Coronavirus infection rates in Serbia, while still relatively low, have nearly trebled over the past two to three weeks. The country has so far fully vaccinated less than half of its population, compared with an average in the EU of 70%.