Was there ever a doubt that Novak Djokovic, jab or no jab, would end up in Melbourne this month to defend his Australian Open title?
Not seemingly among his competitors. Many of them figured as soon as the tournament announced late last year that players could apply for a medical exemption from the Covid-19 inoculation requirement that officials would find a way for the vaccine-averse, 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion to compete for a record 10th title in Australia.
And when that exemption came through on Tuesday, and Djokovic, a Serbian ranked No. 1, posted a picture of himself on Twitter announcing his imminent departure for Australia, reaction among the pro tennis elite ranged from skeptical to inspired.
There was this exchange from Alex de Minaur and James Duckworth, both of Australia, after they lost their singles matches in the ATP Cup, a team tournament in Sydney.
“If he’s fit the criteria, then, yeah, he should be able to come,” Duckworth said.
“That’s very politically correct of you,” de Minaur said with a laugh. “As James has very wisely put out there, I think he’s said all the right things there. Look, I just think it’s just very interesting, that’s all I’m going to say.”
But there was also this: “Hope he wins the whole thing,” Tennys Sandgren, another pro player and outspoken vaccine/science skeptic, posted on Twitter. Sandgren, an American, is not participating in the Australian Open.
A bit of background.
Djokovic, who is tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most Grand Slam men’s singles titles, has long held some non-traditional views of science and medicine (he once asserted that prayer and belief could purify toxic water) and has had a complicated relationship with the pandemic.
In June 2020, when sports were still largely shut down, and long before experts deemed it safe for people to gather and large events to take place, Djokovic organized a series of exhibition matches in Serbia and Croatia and invited several of the world’s top players to participate. They obliged, and several of them became infected with the coronavirus, including Djokovic.
Eventually, vaccines became available and a debate ensued about requiring tennis players to get inoculated, to protect themselves, tennis fans and tournament organizers, since the tours are an 11-month journey around the world. Djokovic was adamantly against this. He has long said vaccination is a private and personal decision that should not be mandated.
This placed him at odds with his chief rivals, Federer and Nadal, who are vaccinated. Just last month, Nadal said he did not have a position on a mandate but deferred to the experts who said vaccines were the best way to protect everyone.
“I don’t pretend to know more than what the authorized people say,” Nadal said last month during his preparation for the Australian Open in the United Arab Emirates. He tested positive for the coronavirus upon his return to Spain. “If the people who really know about it say that we need to be vaccinated, who I am to create a different opinion?”
Throughout last year, the WTA, the professional women’s tour, and the ATP, the men’s circuit, did not require a vaccination, though players often have had to adhere to staying within a strict bubblelike environment as they hopscotched the world.
But then the Australian Open announced the vaccine would be required to gain entry into the country. Djokovic’s father referred to the mandate as “blackmail.” A confrontation between tournament organizers and the king of Rod Laver Arena appeared inevitable, producing mixed emotions at the top of the game.
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The global surge. The coronavirus is spreading faster than ever at the start of 2022, but the last days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant produces less severe illness than earlier waves. As such, governments are focusing more on expanding vaccination than limiting the spread.
Djokovic’s absence would make it easier for his rivals to win. But while he is not exactly close with Federer or Nadal, Djokovic is extremely popular among many top players, including leading members of the so-called next generation, like Alexander Zverev of Germany, Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who also happen to be his neighbors in Monte Carlo.
“Hopefully the Australian government will make an exemption or whatever it is that they can do for him to be able to participate there,” Zverev said in November at the ATP Finals in Italy.
Such an exemption had the potential to become a political hornet’s nest in Australia. The country has waged one of the most successful battles against Covid-19 but it has come at a steep price. There have been many strict lockdowns that have lasted for months. International borders were largely closed until recently. Inbound travelers had to adhere to an expensive, two-week quarantine upon arrival. For long periods, domestic travel between states was also prohibited. The country has experienced just 2,200 deaths but since opening its borders late last year it is now dealing with more than 30,000 cases each day.
As the Australian Open approached, though, Craig Tiley, the tournament director, announced that in accordance with the government of Victoria, the state where Melbourne is, there would be an independent review process to consider possible medical exemptions for unvaccinated players who had a “genuine reason.”
Players had to pass muster with two panels of medical experts. The process included the redaction of personal information to ensure privacy, but that emphasis on privacy also meant that the panel and the tournament did not release any justification for exempting Djokovic.
In a statement Tuesday, Tiley said, “Fair and independent protocols were established for assessing medical exemption applications that will enable us to ensure Australian Open 2022 is safe and enjoyable for everyone. Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was given due consideration.”
Not everyone in the game believed that.
“I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” Jamie Murray of Britain said on Tuesday following his ATP Cup doubles match. “But well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete.”
In a week and a half, Djokovic will do just that.