World No 1 Novak Djokovic is facing a backlash from fellow players – as well as the Australian public – after announcing that he is travelling to Melbourne on a medical exemption, rather than undergoing vaccination like the vast majority of the field.
The Association of Tennis Professionals said last week that 95 of the world’s top 100 have been vaccinated against Covid. But Djokovic appears to be an exception. Now the conversation around Australia’s player lounges will surround the unexpected decision to let him into the country anyway.
Unsurprisingly, there was a feeling on Tuesday that the world No 1 might be receiving preferential treatment on account of his huge profile and standing within the game. “I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” said the British doubles specialist Jamie Murray.
After weeks of debate over Djokovic’s presence – or otherwise – at the Australian Open, the news finally emerged via his own social media channels on Tuesday morning. “I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the Christmas break,” he wrote in his post, “and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!”
While Djokovic’s tone was triumphant, he is likely to experience a chilly welcome in Melbourne – a city which has taken a tough line on lockdowns. No ordinary member of the public is allowed into Melbourne Park – the venue for the upcoming Australian Open – without evidence of vaccination. Some will surely quote James Merlino, the deputy state premier for Victoria, who said last month that “Medical exemptions are just that – it’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players.”
A slap in the face for many Melburnians
This issue will rumble on throughout the coming month, and indeed the coming season, given that the Australian Open is unlikely to be the last tournament to insist on vaccinations or carefully scrutinised exemptions.
The mechanics of this process are complex. Soon after Djokovic’s post, Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government found themselves contradicting each other over who was ultimately responsible. This back-and-forth underlined the likely unpopularity of the decision, which many Melburnians will see as a slap in the face after spending so many months under restrictive anti-Covid protocols.
So how did Djokovic get admitted to Australia? It seems unlikely that he – or anyone else – will reveal the nature of his exemption. But the most likely explanation must be that he has contracted Covid for a second time at some point in the last six months, having previously caught it during his ill-fated Adria Tour event in the summer of 2020.
This would negate the need for vaccination, according to rules published in November by one of two independent medical panels involved in the decision. All you need to achieve this outcome is a certificate from an accredited doctor in your home country. It seems unlikely that Djokovic has cited an “acute medical condition” – the other main route to an exemption – given that he won three of the four majors last year.
Jamie Murray wasn’t the only player to sound sceptical on Tuesday. When the subject came up in a press conference involving Australia’s Alex de Minaur, he replied “I just think it’s just very interesting, that’s all I’m going to say. But, hey, it is what it is.”
Also on Tuesday, it emerged that the two-time Australian Open quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren is not travelling to Melbourne because of the tournament’s vaccination policy. Sandgren then received a message on social media from fellow American player Tommy Paul, asking whether he would be seeking an exemption. “Not quite the same pull [as Djokovic],” he replied.