Novak Djokovic came within one win after sweeping all four of last year’s Grand Slam tennis tournaments and entered 2022 in need of one title to set the men’s record with 21 major championships.
He may not get the chance to pursue that mark at the Australian Open when the game begins in Melbourne on 17 January.
This is because, although Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, was granted a medical exemption to circumvent a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all players and their support teams at the hard-court tournament, his visa to enter Australia was revoked in the early hours Thursday, local time, after being detained at the airport for about eight hours.
Here’s a look at some of the issues surrounding Djokovic’s attempts to play in the Australian Open:
WHAT WAS THE REASON FOR DJOKOVIC’S EXEMPTION? WAS ANYONE ELSE ALLOCATED TO ONE?
The state government of Victoria, where Melbourne Park is located, imposed full vaccination on all players, staff and fans at the Australian Open, unless there is a real medical cause. Victoria’s Deputy Prime Minister James Merlino said medical exemptions would not be “a loophole for privileged tennis players” and would only be possible under “normal circumstances if you have an acute medical condition.” Tennis Australia said Djokovic’s request for a waiver “was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts.” Neither Tennis Australia nor Djokovic revealed the reason why he applied for a waiver. Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said a total of 26 players or support staff applied for exemptions and that a “handful” was granted. Acceptable reasons included acute serious medical conditions, severe side effects of an earlier dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, or evidence of a COVID-19 infection within the previous six months.
IF HE HAD AN EXEMPTION, WHY WAS DJOKOVIC PREVENTED FROM COMING TO AUSTRALIA?
When he landed at the airport, the Australian border force canceled Djokovic’s visa, saying he “could not provide adequate evidence to meet entry requirements.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted, “No one is above these rules,” and later said at a news conference that Djokovic’s release was not valid, but did not explain the details.
WHAT HAS THE REACTION BEEN IN AUSTRALIA? AND IN SERBIA?
The news that Djokovic was on his way to Australia with a dispensation – first announced by him via social media, then by Tennis Australia via press release – was not exactly met warmly in Melbourne, where most people endured months of strict lockdowns and tough travel restrictions on the height of the pandemic. More than 90% of Victoria’s residents aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated. The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, who called it “harassment” about Djokovic’s status upon his arrival, was not surprisingly opposed.
IS DJOKOVIC VACCINATED? HAS HE HAD COVID-19?
While Djokovic has consistently refused to say whether he received any shots to protect against coronavirus, he would not have needed a dispensation to enter Australia if he had been fully vaccinated. In April 2020, he issued a statement in which he said: “Personally, I am opposed to vaccination against COVID-19 in order to travel. But if it becomes mandatory, I will have to make a decision whether I want to do it or not. ” Two months later, he and his wife tested positive for the disease caused by coronavirus after a series of exhibition fights he arranged without social distancing or masking.
WHY IS THIS AUSTRALIAN OPENING IMPORTANT FOR DJOKOVIC? AND WHY IS HE IMPORTANT FOR THE TOURNAMENT?
Djokovic is on the abyss of history, a Grand Slam trophy away from finally overtaking rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most part in men’s history. When Federer entered the 2011 season, he owned 16 major titles, Nadal nine and Djokovic one. Now every 20th Djokovic, who last year darkened Federer’s mark for most career weeks as No. 1 on the men’s rankings, already owns nine Australian Open championships, the men’s record.
SHOULD TENNIS PLAYERS BE VACCINATED TO PLAY IN ALL TOURNAMENTS?
No. In tennis, such mandates come from national, state, or local authorities, and this is the first time it comes into play at a tournament. At the last Grand Slam event, such as the US Open in New York in August and September, players and their team members did not need to be vaccinated (but at the urging of the mayor’s office, the US Tennis Association required spectators to show they had at least one shot ).
ARE MOST TENNIS PLAYERS VACCINATED?
At least two others, Tennys Sandgren and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, are out at the Australian Open because they have not been vaccinated. A spokeswoman for the women’s professional tennis tour said on Wednesday that 85% of the WTA’s top 100 players are fully vaccinated; a spokesman for the men’s professional tour tweeted late last month that ATP’s top 100 vaccination rate was 95%.
SO IS THIS ENTIRE EPISODE END?
Questionable. Djokovic is launching a lawsuit in Australia’s federal court against the cancellation of his visa. If he were forced to leave now, he would have time to return before the Australian Open starts, if his attempt to enter Australia – and the Australian Open – eventually proved successful.