In a surprising turn of events, Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic announced his withdrawal from the Indian Wells Masters tournament on Monday, citing difficulties in obtaining entry to the United States due to COVID-19 protocols. Djokovic’s decision comes after he had won a record ninth Australian Open title last month, propelling him to the top of the men’s tennis rankings.

The Indian Wells Masters, also known as the BNP Paribas Open, is one of the most prestigious events on the men’s and women’s professional tennis tours, featuring many of the sport’s top players. The tournament was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year’s edition was slated to take place from March 8 to 21 in California’s Coachella Valley.

However, Djokovic, who had been planning to compete in the tournament, announced on social media that he had been advised not to travel to the United States since he had not yet received a visa. The 33-year-old athlete stated that he had applied for a waiver of the U.S. entry ban for foreign nationals who had recently been in Serbia, one of several countries facing travel restrictions due to the pandemic. Djokovic argued that he had complied with all the necessary health and safety protocols, including multiple COVID-19 tests, and that he would not have posed a risk to public health.

“I am extremely disappointed that my time in California will be cut short,” Djokovic said in a statement. “Unfortunately, I will not be able to play in the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells due to a diplomatic situation, and it is very sad that I cannot compete in front of my fans in America.” Djokovic added that he would continue to train and prepare for upcoming events, including the Miami Open and the Monte Carlo Masters.

The news of Djokovic’s withdrawal from Indian Wells came as a shock to many fans and analysts, as the Serbian player had been in top form recently, winning the Australian Open with ease and extending his lead over rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the rankings. Djokovic has often been touted as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, with a record of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including nine at the Australian Open.

The reasons for Djokovic’s visa troubles are unclear, but they may be related to past controversies involving the player’s actions during the pandemic. Djokovic was widely criticized last year for organizing an exhibition tournament in the Balkans that turned into a COVID-19 cluster, with several players, including Djokovic himself, testing positive. The incident sparked outrage in the tennis community and beyond, with many accusing Djokovic of being reckless and irresponsible.

In addition, Djokovic has been vocal about his skepticism of vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, which he has said he would only take if it were made mandatory for travel. He has also been critical of quarantine measures implemented by some tournaments, arguing that they are too strict and unfair to players.

Djokovic’s withdrawal from Indian Wells is a blow to the tournament’s organizers, who had been hoping to draw a strong field of players after the event’s hiatus last year. The absence of Djokovic, who has won the Indian Wells title five times, will impact the tournament’s star power and could deter other players from participating.

The incident also raises questions about the future of tennis during the pandemic, as players continue to navigate travel restrictions and health protocols. With many tournaments reducing their prize money and struggling to attract top players, the sport faces an uncertain road ahead. Djokovic’s situation highlights the challenges faced by athletes who must balance their desire to compete with the need to protect public health and comply with regulations.

As for Djokovic himself, the withdrawal from Indian Wells is a setback, but one that he will likely rebound from. The Serbian player has proven time and again that he is a resilient and determined competitor, and he will no doubt be eager to return to the court and assert his dominance in the coming months. Whether he will be able to do so remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Djokovic’s absence from Indian Wells is a loss for tennis fans everywhere.