DUBAI: Tennis world number one Novak Djokovic landed in Dubai on Monday after his sensational deportation from Australia over his coronavirus vaccination status shattered his dream of scoring a record 21st Grand Slam title in Melbourne.
As the Australian Open got under way, the men's defending champion stepped off an Emirates plane carrying two bags and wearing a mask -- his final destination unknown.
The dramatic deportation followed a protracted and high-stakes legal battle between the unvaccinated Djokovic and the Australian authorities that polarised opinion and tarnished reputations on both sides.
Djokovic said he was "extremely disappointed" after a Federal Court unanimously upheld the cancellation of his visa on public order grounds.
He now faces a possible three-year ban from Australia, where he was won nine of his 20 Grand Slam titles -- a tally that equals the all-time record alongside Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is wrestling with record coronavirus numbers, said "there was a very clear message sent".
But he hinted that Djokovic could be allowed to return within three years "in the right circumstances".
"It (the ban) does go over a three-year period, but there is the opportunity for them to return in the right circumstances and that would be considered at the time," he said in a radio interview.
The humbled Djokovic boarded a flight from Melbourne's Tullamarine airport for Dubai late Sunday, accompanied by a retinue of aides and officials.
Emirates flight EK409 took off at 10:51 pm local time (1151 GMT), according to an AFP reporter on board, and landed before dawn in Dubai.
Twice in the last 11 days Australia's government had ripped up Djokovic's visa and placed him in immigration detention -- saying his presence could fuel anti-vaccine sentiment amid a wave of Omicron cases.
Twice the Serbian star fought the decision in court, winning one round but losing Sunday's decider in Australia's Federal Court, James Allsop, ending a week of legal drama.
"I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love," Djokovic said, acknowledging the game was up.
The controversy looks set to rumble on, with Djokovic's image seriously damaged and Australia feeding a growing reputation for hostility towards visitors.
But Morrison, who faces a tough reelection battle this year, is unlikely to suffer much of a public backlash over the saga, even among those with misgivings about his hardline immigration policies.
Many Australians -- who have suffered prolonged lockdowns and border restrictions that effectively kept families and loved ones apart -- believe Djokovic gamed the system to dodge vaccine entry requirements, and are happy to see him go.
"I think they did the right thing asking him to leave. If he was still here it would be all Djokovic. But the tournament is about so much more than him," one tennis fan, Simon Overton, told AFP as the Australian Open got under way in Melbourne Park.
But others, including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, condemned the Australian decision to deport Djokovic.
"They think that they have by this, this mistreatment of 10 days, humiliated Djokovic, but they have humiliated themselves," Vucic told a state media outlet.
During the roller coaster days leading up to the Australian Open -- and Djokovic's deportation -- it emerged the tennis ace contracted Covid-19 in mid-December and, according to his own account, failed to isolate despite knowing he was positive.
Public records show he attended a stamp unveiling and a youth tennis event, and granted a media interview around the time he got tested and his latest infection was confirmed.
Djokovic declined to give evidence in the case to dispel the notion that he is opposed to vaccines.
"He has now become an icon for the anti-vaccination groups," government lawyer Stephen Lloyd said. "Rightly or wrongly he is perceived to endorse an anti-vaccination view and his presence here is seen to contribute to that."
"He could set the record straight if it needed correcting. He has not -- that has important consequences."
Spanish great Nadal took a swipe at his rival on Saturday as players complained the scandal was overshadowing the opening Grand Slam of the year.
"The Australian Open is much more important than any player," Nadal told reporters at Melbourne Park.
However, Djokovic's compatriot Miomir Kecmanovic, who was set to face the nine-time champion in the first round on Monday, called the incident a "bitter pill to swallow".
"Our little Serbian team here in Melbourne is upset and disappointed," Kecmanovic wrote on Instagram.