Novak Djokovic is a victim of a "political witch hunt", claimed Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic on Thursday, as the father of the tennis superstar said his son had been "crucified" like Jesus Christ.
Djokovic was detained on arrival at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport on Wednesday having failed to "provide appropriate evidence" of double vaccination or a medical exemption to enter the country where he was hoping to defend his Australian Open title.
The 34-year-old world number one had his visa cancelled and is now facing deportation from the country.
He was forced to spend Thursday night at an immigration detention facility.
Vucic, though, claimed Djokovic was being hounded as other players had already been permitted to enter Australia with medical exemptions.
"What is not fair play is the political witch hunt (being conducted against Djokovic), by everybody including the Australian Prime Minister pretending that the rules apply to all," Vucic told Serbian media.
In the Serbian capital Belgrade, Djokovic's father Srdjan led a demonstration alongside a few hundred others in front of the country's parliament.
"We are not calling for violence... only for support" for Novak, Srdjan shouted into a megaphone, as the crowd waved Serbian flags and homemade signs, including a banner that read: "They are afraid of the best, stop corona fascism".
Djokovic "met all the required conditions for the entry and participation at the tournament that he would have certainly won.
"Since it's Novak, the best tennis player and sportsman in the world," the father told a press conference earlier Thursday.
"Jesus was crucified and endured many things but is still alive among us. Novak is also crucified... the best sportsman and man in the world. He will endure."
Meanwhile, the Australian ambassador to Serbia was handed a verbal protest note over the "inappropriate treatment" of the player in Melbourne, the foreign ministry in Belgrade said.
"Djokovic is not a criminal, terrorist or illegal migrant, but was treated that way by the Australian authorities which causes an understandable indignation of his fans and citizens of Serbia," a ministry statement said.
Vucic said earlier that Serbia's Prime Minister Ana Brnabic will be in touch with a senior member of Australia's Home Affairs department.
- 'Disgusting' -
The Serbians will ask the Australian authorities that at the very least Djokovic can stay, whilst his appeal is heard, in the house in Melbourne he had rented for the Australian Open (which runs from January 17 to January 30).
"I fear that this relentless political pursuit of Novak will continue until the moment they can prove something, because when you cannot defeat somebody then you turn to these type of things," said Vucic.
Elsewhere in Belgrade, reactions to the fiasco appeared to be more mixed.
"They do not let in their country people from other continents who have mud on their shoes let alone someone who is not vaccinated against a contagious disease," Mihailo Kljajic, a 29-year-old flight attendant, told AFP.
"I don't know what he expected would happen," he added.
Others were appalled by the situation.
"It is chaotic, crazy, disgusting," said Branka Vuksanovic, a pensioner.